Cockpit Chronicles: Stunning clouds, a blue tower and a few meetups.

As a pilot, every now and then you’ll have a chance to catch a sight that just burns into your memory. The spire of the Empire State Building piercing a setting sun while approaching New York’s JFK airport, or watching a satellite pass overhead while holding above a thick cloud layer of fog over Anchorage.

But nothing can top the scene witnessed by every airplane crossing the North Atlantic on July 22nd, at around 3 a.m. in whatever time zone we were crossing.

At first, we thought we noticed a faint glow of the northern lights. Pretty soon, the colors became so spectacular that we began calling the flight attendants up to the cockpit to check out the light show.

But these aurora borealis weren’t moving or changing colors. And the colors that were starting to appear, didn’t match the usual green glow I was used to.

It didn’t take long for pilots on 123.45, a VHF channel that’s normally used to report ride conditions and any weather deviations, to start a discussion about what we were seeing.

A British Airways pilot mentioned that these were high altitude noctilucent clouds. After spelling it a number of times, he explained that they were possibly caused by methane gas in the upper atmosphere.

While Captain Mark called in a position report and I captured the glow over the horizon with my Canon Digital Rebel’s wide-angle lens-the only lens I managed to bring along.

These clouds live around 300,000 feet high. From what I’ve read online, scientists aren’t completely sure what causes them. One thing is known, the only time to see them is just before the sun starts to rise, since the clouds aren’t visible unless illuminated from below in the early morning.

I was so thankful I brought my camera. I no longer go to work without it. There were just far too many times where I saw a once–in–a–lifetime scene with no way to capture it.

There’s speculation that these clouds are stronger with every space shuttle flight, which may be causing some of the clouds. A satellite was launched last year by NASA to study the exact reasons behind the formation of these clouds. USA Today is reporting that these same clouds were visible from the international space station this summer.

The month of July was rather busy again, with another six Paris trips. In between all this flying, I had to pack up everything stored in our basement to get ready for our my family’s August 15th house move.

So that’s why you may have noticed a lack of posts to the Cockpit Chronicles lately.

I just can’t let an entire month’s worth of flying pass without mention, so I’d like to cover a few of the more exciting things that went on in Paris.

At the beginning of the month, I met up with Gadling’s senior editor, Grant Martin, who showed me one of his favorite Parisian restaurants along the Champs-Élysées. It’s at the Renault automobile showroom, in fact.

Above the Formula 1 car displays and overlooking Renault’s current line of cars, is a unique and surprisingly inexpensive restaurant. We talked about Gadling over a few beers and a pasta dish that was simply excellent.

After dinner, we decided to work our way to the Latin quarter using the Velib bikes. Grant had a card that would work-for Americans, only an American Express card will work in the Velib kiosks-so we picked up a couple of bikes, and managed to work our way east, stopping before 30 minutes had passed to check in and then check out the bikes, to prevent the excess charges from kicking in. If we were successful in finding kiosks within the 1/2 hour limit, the total Velib charge would only cost 1€.

We stopped at Trocedero to snap a bunch of pictures of the Eiffel Tower that was bathed in blue light. The scene from up there was spectacular and we both managed a few great pictures of this event that was to last only a few more weeks.

We had to work our way around thousands of roller bladers participating in the Pari Roller, a night ride through Paris of over 20km. Here’s a quick video taken that night:

The next trip was with my good friend Captain Dave, who brought his wife and daughter. I knew Nicole, their daughter, would love the evening Fat Tire Bike Tour, so we grabbed a quick sandwich before jumping on bikes again to cover the city.

Three days later, I was back in Paris with Captain Mark. We met up with many of the flight attendants for a picnic in the park, a common and rather inexpensive way to enjoy the great weather over bottle of wine, some cheese, bread and whatever else someone thinks to bring. We still managed to maintain enough of an appetite to eat at La Fresque restaurant in the Marais district.

Once again Mark and I returned to Paris, it was on this trip that we saw the noctilucent clouds on the way over. After the requisite nap, we met up with one of the frequent commenters on Gadling, Thaddeus, who was studying at the Cité University which isn’t far from where we stay.

Thaddeus has used the misguided adventures me
ntioned here as a basis for touring much of the city, and for that, I figured I should probably meet him for a drink while he was still in town. Mark and I joined up with him and learned that when he isn’t traveling, he is an intern at Bloomberg living in New York.

Mark wanted to show us some of the underground that’s been preserved in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. I hadn’t realized that these Roman ruins had been preserved and available for anyone to check out.

By the time we came above ground, we were a bit parched, so we stopped at a cafe for a drink before deciding to eat dinner at Le Hide, my new favorite restaurant in Paris.

Thaddeus hadn’t been to the Arc de Triumph yet, so it was a good opportunity to cover some ground he hadn’t seen. Even so, Thaddeus proved to be the best guide for us, as he had been covering quite a lot of Paris and he was very familiar with the Metro and many of the important destinations in the city.

As we worked our way to the restaurant, we ran into 4 or 5 of the flight attendants. Thaddeus actually recognized at least one of them from reading this blog.

Le Hide turned out to be excellent as usual. Thaddeus went for the Entrecôte, (rib steak), but everyone agreed the escargot appetizer and the sea bass entree were the tastiest. This restaurant is still an amazing value at 22 and 29€ for the two or three course meal.

We passed on the desert, instead hoping to catch something over at the Latin Quarter. As we walked to the metro, we traveled for a while down the Champs-Élysées and I insisted Mark and Thaddeus take a look at the Renault showroom.

We were distracted for a while with a reaction testing machine, which turned out to be a humbling experience for us. This machine was a spider of lights on a wall which would light up one at a time. The object was to press the light after it lit up and to try to get as many in a minute as possible.

We watched someone who no doubt worked at the showroom set a high score. After both Thaddeus and I gave it a try, we were beaten by a girl who happened to walk by. Wisely, Mark elected to skip this test.

Without a doubt, Thaddeus made this a great experience for Mark and me. After a trip to China, Thaddeus has become addicted to travel, but he’s still focused on finishing his senior year of college in New York and landing a good job. Ultimately he wants to be a teacher. Needless to say, Mark and I were really impressed.

Those are some of the highlights of my final full month of Paris trips for the year. For August, I started out with a line of Caracas and Laguardia trips, but I managed to take some time off to move. I finished August with what may be my last Paris trip, which turned out to be memorable. Stay tuned for some even more embarrassing video clips in the next post.

For more pictures from July, including Kelly the co-pilot inside a 767 engine, take a look at the gallery below.


Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston.