Cockpit Chronicles: Six surreal sights seen by pilots

I’ve said it before; the office view from the pointy-end of an airliner is something that can only be matched by an astronaut’s view.

But that’s not to say we don’t get to see a few celestial sights of our own. No, I’m not going to touch on the rumored UFO sightings by pilots, although I promise I’ll keep my camera ready, just in case. I’m talking about the stunning sights, both man-made and natural that we can witness if we take the time to look for them.

Here are examples of six ‘out of this world’ sights as seen from the cockpit:

1) Rocket plumes and Shuttle launches:

On March 5th, while coming back to Boston from Santo Domingo, we saw the rocket plume of the secretive X-37B project. Even though it launched from Orlando, which was at least 600 miles away, we knew right away what it was. The spiraling exhaust left circles in the sky.

We knew to look for this as a possibility as our flight was dispatched with extra fuel, in case we needed to be re-routed well away from the launch area which was noted at the bottom of our flight plan.

The first sign of the rocket appeared as a trail of exhaust that began to swing off into a contorted lasso. The new moon, less than 24 hours old, presented itself in just the right spot amongst the rocket blast. Of course I had to pull out the camera.

%Gallery-118861%Occasionally, a Shuttle launch can be spotted as well. Back in the 727 days, before carrying a camera everywhere I flew, I saw a Space Shuttle launch while flying from San Juan to Tampa.

Passengers can get lucky as well, as seen in this video that caught the ascent of the Space Shuttle Discovery:

2) Noctilucent Clouds

Another rare natural event, which some speculate is actually enhanced by rocket and shuttle exhaust plumes, are noctilucent clouds.

The conditions have to be just right in order to witness these clouds that live at 300,000 feet, (80 to 85 kilometers) an altitude which seems impossible, considering the lack of atmosphere, for a cloud to exist.

They’re most commonly seen during a two month period that straddles the summer solstice. Furthermore, most sightings occur between 50 and 70 degrees latitude; perfect if you live north of New York, Madrid or Beijing and south of Barrow, Alaska.

Finally, as if to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to catch sight of these clouds, they’re only visible for an hour or two before sunrise or for a while after sunset. The reflecting sun illuminates the clouds from below, lighting them up in the dark sky.

I flew across the Atlantic at night, during the perfect time to witness these clouds, for eight years before finally sighting them. Two weeks before snapping these pictures, I had seen a wisp of a cloud that I probably wouldn’t have given any thought to.

But a British Airways pilot explained the clouds to a few curious pilots over our air-to-air frequency that’s often used to share ride information or to collect an email address of a passing flight if an especially good photo is taken.

He spelled the cloud to a pilot, who asked again for the name. N-O-C-T-I-L-U-C-E-N-T.

I vowed to look that up when we landed.

Less than two weeks later, the captain and I dimmed the lights (a time-consuming task involving 30 knobs that will be the subject of a future Cockpit Chronicles video) so we could get a better look at what appeared to be the Northern Lights.

They were spectacular. But there was one thing that didn’t seem quite right. They weren’t moving at all. Typically the Aurora Borealis glow and change shapes every five seconds or so.

After a few minutes I mentioned noctilucent clouds to Mark, the captain. The clouds lit up the arctic sky, although it was two to three a.m. over this part of the Atlantic. The sun wouldn’t be up for a few hours.

Initially I was disappointed that I only had a wide angle lens with me, but it turned out to be just the right look. I think it ranks as my favorite shot ever.

3) Satellites

I have to confess. I never knew it was possible to see satellites with the naked eye when I was a new pilot flying in Alaska. “Look at that traffic.” I said to the captain.

But soon, it became obvious that this ‘traffic’ was missing the rotating beacon or nav-lights typical of an airplane. And it was traveling too fast for its size.

Space shuttle floating away from the International Space Station last week.Jerry Lodriguss at Astropix

After that, I made it a practice to look for satellites when the conversation in the cockpit died off. Again, after dimming the cockpit lights, it was possible to see north-south satellites while flying over the interior of Alaska. I’ve since seen them going in other directions while flying in the jet. Typically, however they’re best seen between one and three hours after sunset, or before sunrise. Just like the noctilucent clouds, the reflecting sun lights them up well.

It’s possible to track the largest of these kind of objects, the International Space Station, and it’s really worth marking down the times it will pass overhead your area for a look. Set your alarm and check it out yourself. Maybe you’ll catch smaller satellite as well while looking. There’s even a good iPhone or Android app that I’ve been using while away from the computer and you want to know when the next satellite, space station or shuttle will pass overhead.

4) Northern Lights

While not exclusively spotted from aircraft, there’s no better time to see the the Northern Lights than while you’re flying at night, away from the bright lights of a city with a clear view to the north. I’ve caught them as far north as Fairbanks, Alaska and as far south as Spokane, Washington (which were the brightest, surprisingly).

If you’re on a night flight across the Atlantic and you just happen to be sitting on the left side of the airplane while traveling east, be sure to open your window shade once or twice to see if you can see anything glowing off in the distance. Very rarely will a pilot announce anything about the Aurora Borealis on these flights, since we presume that most passengers would rather not be disturbed. (See poll below).

5) Meteors and comets

Meteors are probably just as easy to see from the ground, but when you’re in an airplane for hours at a time, with no buildings or lights to obscure your view, it’s far more likely that you’ll see more meteors than those stuck on the ground (a.k.a. groundlings). Usually just one pilot will see the meteor, saying something along the lines of, “Aww, you just missed a bright one there” to the other pilot. If the light show continues, someone might mention it on the air-to-air frequency. The airwaves were lit up years ago when the Hale-Bopp comet first appeared. And just as in the noctilucent example, someone on the air knew all about the comet and proceeded to tell us exactly what we were looking at.

6) Static discharges or St. Elmo’s Fire

Finally, I thought I’d round out our collection of surreal sights with a video taken on one of my flights of a static buildup, sometimes referred to as St. Elmo’s fire, that we occasionally see when flying in the vicinity of thunderstorms.

Wikipedia has a full explanation of what causes this.

With the advent of the new dimming window shades on the 787, passengers are apt to see more of this type of show in the future. All it takes is a slight glow coming through a dimmed window and passengers will hopefully want to investigate by brightening up their shade. Perhaps they’ll get to see what we so often take for granted.


Photos by Kent Wien, Jerry Lodriguss and Aresauburn.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.