The Long Green Flash

Captain Ken O’Donnell began flight training with ATP in 2002, and has gone on to instruct as a CFI and an RJ Instructor for ATP. Ken went on to fly for Republic Airlines, as well as to serve the upcoming generation of airline pilots by acting as a Career Coach on the informational website, BeAnAirlinePilot.com. From time to time Ken sends us stories about flying the line as an Airline Pilot, and I would like to share one with you now:

Early mornings or late nights – pick one. Often, multi-day trips tend towards one side of the clock or the other and this has the expected pros and cons. On the negative side, trips can pass through a few time zones and a New York 4AM alarm can feel like cruel and unusual punishment to a west coaster the first night. Equally, an 11:30PM landing in San Francisco is not always music to the ears of an east coast based pilot.

Coffee can sometimes semi-seriously be referred to as a critical safety item in many cockpits. While flying days are sometimes long and overnights can at times be fairly short (8 hours now, subject to certain increases with pending FAA rule changes), there is still plenty of variety in types of flying and overnights are also often longer. Some trips will start late and end early making them commutable to/from home for a pilot, and sometimes overnights of over 24hours are scheduled into a trip, great if you want to explore a city or have friends/family there – I’ve known pilots who find time to ski in the Rockies, surf in Southern California or catch a ball game on a long overnight. With increasing seniority pilots gain greater control over selecting specific trips, or types of trips (early, late, commutable, specific cities, maximizing flight hours per day, specific days off, etc) they prefer.

There can also be some unexpected bonuses on those early or late days. Pilots definitely see their fair share of beautiful sunrises and sunsets, stunningly bright constellations from 7 miles up, and the occasional “close up” of a shooting star tearing by. Flying above an overcast layer at night, clouds glow orange from city lights below. The Milky Way can be almost bright on a moonless night, and satellites occasionally cruise past high above. Saint Elmo’s fire is worth a quick internet search as it has a rich history amongst mariners, and in an aircraft certain atmospheric conditions at night can bring faint violet electrical static to flicker across the cockpit windows.

One of my favorite rare sights on those early and late flights is unquestionably the green flash. Having spent a fair amount of time at sea in the Navy, it was not uncommon to keep an eye out should a green flash occur – With a clear horizon – typically the ocean – and perfect (i.e., uncommon) atmospheric conditions, the sun’s very first rays at sunrise or final seconds of sunset will sometimes refract into a soft neon green flash – this is visible as the tiniest sliver of sun, and often for just a very brief moment. With about 5 years at sea I searched often and am only half convinced I saw it once, but have since found that catching one is a bit more likely up in the flight levels.

A recent early morning flight from New Orleans to Washington D.C. allowed me the most unique view of a green flash I may ever have “control” of. We left New Orleans in the early morning well before sunrise, climbing out in the dark, and settling into a smooth cruise as we monitored our progress and enjoyed some good New Orleans coffee with the sky gradually lightening to the east. The sun was nearly up as ATC requested our initial descent out of flight level 350 (about 35,000ft). We had the crisp sort of horizon that could possibly bring a green flash and I realized that our rate of descent might just be able to match the sunrise, effectively pausing it – for a given latitude and longitude, elevation lets you see a more distant horizon, and pulls the sun higher in the sky, so our descent would reverse the sun’s progress.

We began down just as the sun’s first rays shone and I set our descent rate at about 1500 feet per minute, slightly tweaking it as we descended. After a little bit of trial and error, my FO and I were rewarded with an absolutely perfect and steady green flash that we were able to hold in view for several minutes before we leveled off. A green flash is supposed to bring good luck – so I’m not sure what several minutes’ worth means, though I’m satisfied with the simple luck and pleasure of witnessing something like that, and would have to add it to the perks of the “other” side of the clock where pilots sometimes find themselves.