Owing to various undisclosed aspects of my personality, I can report that it is considerably easier for me to list my weaknesses than my strengths. This may be one of my few strengths. When I took a boating course, I did pretty well but for the life of me I could not pass the knots section. I am clearly knot challenged. I even cannot tie my shoes properly, or at least the way most people do it. I once had a bunch of behavior analysts teach me, and I could do it briefly, but then forgot. Fortunately, as a pilot, other than tying down an airplane at some small airports, one doesn’t need to know how to tie knots and it isn’t on the test.
As far as the stuff that is on the test goes, I am considerably challenged in the important area of weather knowledge. It is not that I am disinterested; in fact, I find weather fascinating. I can tell you a few basic facts, but beyond that I’m not so good at it. I could blame it on the fact that flying in California one doesn’t have much use for it, but that would be a pretty lame excuse.
Every once in a while a weather phenomenon pops out at me from the shadows that I find particularly romantic. We are all familiar with moon shadows, thanks to Cat Stevens, and those nights when the moon shines brightly are particularly beautiful when flying. On a well moonlit night, a pilot can sometimes watch the shadow of her airplane fly alongside her as it is projected on the tops of the clouds below.
Many of us are unfamiliar with the poetically named wind shadow. Wind shadows occur close to the ground, when buildings, trees or other obstructions block the path of the wind. When buildings are located near a runway, as they often are, and you are in the process of landing or departing, carefully adjusting your airplane’s attitude to honor the surface winds, the wind can suddenly drop away as you enter the temporary void of the wind shadow and poof!–there goes your previously well-adjusted attitude.
I like to think of wind shadows proportional to the wind that they are shadowing. The greater the wind, the more the shadow will have an impact. When landing or departing in a heavy crosswind, any sudden change in the wind will require speedy adjustment, but not so speedy as to lose one’s suavecito. Any good pilot will tell you that one must never lose one’s suavecito. This is an aviation term that roughly translates to the lack of sudden, jerky movements when controlling an airplane.
The nice thing about wind shadows is that, unlike moon shadows, they really can’t follow you. You could—in theory—hide in one for a while, but unless you want to stay where you are or meet someone else who might like hiding in wind shadows that would be pointless. On the ground, they may come in handy when trying to light cigarettes in the wind, but fortunately not too many people do that anymore.
There are some tree-lined streets a few miles from my home and I was told that local farmers planted them as wind breaks to protect the crops. Leave it up to those clever humans to mess with Mother Nature in order to increase the yield of their crops. The next time you find yourself eating strawberries, artichokes, or God forbid iceberg lettuce, be sure to bow to the farmers who created wind shadows in which to nurture them.
Back when I was in college, before the dawn of civilization, I used to play and sing “Moon Shadow” to kids at the pre-school where I worked between classes. I am not sure Cat Stevens wrote it as a children’s song, but it caught on big in that particular demographic. Like many of the other children’s songs, the lyrics didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it was a catchy tune and you could infer somehow, buried deep between the lines, that Cat Stevens was just trying to let you know that we shouldn’t take life so seriously. That’s a really tough concept for me, but one worth grappling with, hopefully not too seriously. In that wind vein, I imagine that if the winds were winds of adversity, as winds often are, I wouldn’t at all mind being followed by wind shadows. A life well lived, methinks, is a life bound to expose us to winds of misfortune, and a break now and then can be quite a blessing.
Winds will gust wantonly from time to time, presenting challenges to pilots and non-pilots alike. We dance with them as best as we can, dip our wings and point our noses into them. But as we struggle to leave the earth and return safely, their sudden disappearance can be a challenge. The shadow of the wind can feel like a gift of safety, but when the shadow takes you by surprise and you lose your dancing partner it can be frightening. The very idea of it ties me up in knots, and that’s not easy for me to do.