Rambling travelogs from a world traveler

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Tale of Two Meteors

I've been putting off writing this one for a month now. At the end, you'll see why.

(Parents, yet another vulgarity warning....Like the others, it's integral to the story, but you ought to read ahead.)

Some time back, on a weekend layover in western Texas - Lubbock - I think it was, we wound up talking to some ol' boys in a bar. You could tell that one of them was really intrigued that we were freight dogs flying for FedEx and that he had something on his mind. I watched him work up his courage to ask:

"You boys from FedEx fly all night, don't ya?"
"Yes, we do."
"I'll bet you boys see some shit. ........ But you wouldn't tell me if you did, would ya?"

It took me a moment to realize that he wanted to hear a UFO story.

Esteemed readers, since I was a boy, astronomy has been a strong interest of mine. I am an amateur astronomer and as most of you know, I own a telescope that I have used a lot. I have spent a lot of time looking at the night sky and enjoying what I see. I have worked my way through the Messier List, and found all 110 of them. I've seen solar and lunar eclipses and all nine of the old traditional planets, before they got reclassified.

What I'm trying to say is in roughly 40 years of looking at the night sky, airborne and on the ground, I have seen a lot of 'stuff' but I have never seen anything that I couldn't immediately explain. I had to disappoint our old boy above. Of course, he took "no" as confirmation of the conspiracy.

Last Oct 10, just before descent into Shanghai, China, I saw the biggest and best meteor I've ever seen. The second best meteor is a story I'm saving until the end here. You'll see why.

There was no way to get a picture of this thing, so my meager descriptive talents will have to do. It was one of the clearest days and nights I'd ever seen in my time flying over China -beautiful night. We had just turned off the flight deck overhead lights to start dark adapting for descent and landing. Orion was booming in clear and bright in the east and I spent a moment or two looking at the hazy spot where M43 and M42 make the jewel in Orion's belt.

Esteemed reader, I'd like you to consider the thought process I'm about to describe and how long it probably took - at least 5 seconds. That is an eon for a meteor to exist. This thing burned forever.

It started when I noticed a bright light wink-on on the left side of the aircraft at about the 10 o'clock position. Often when two jet airplanes cross one another's path in the night sky, we'll flash our landing lights at each other as a friendly: "Hail Fellow, Well Met!" greeting. I thought that was what I was looking at.

Then it dawned on me that this light was a very bright green - much like a stop light green except much brighter, intense and saturated. That forced me to abandon my aircraft explanation because no landing light is green that I know of. Next, I thought it was the reflection of a green cockpit light, because some MD-11s have a bright green light that reflects on the window in roughly that location on the windscreen. I was quickly forced to reject that idea when I realized this airplane didn't have that light and this thing was too bright.

This whole time this bright green light is just hanging there in the windscreen with a slowly accelerating apparent movement down and left across my field of view. Then it starts to slowly brighten and dim. I have never seen anything like it. I was beginning to wonder if I had one of the old boy's UFOs. Finally, it started moving fast enough that it dawned on me that I was looking at a meteor.

I had time to yell to the First Officer: "Do you see this meteor?", and for him to answer yes. You never have time to talk during a normal sized meteor. Now, Gentle Reader, a meteor always enters the atmosphere well in excess of Earth's orbital escape velocity: 25,000 mile per hour or 7 miles per second. They are fast. So for this thing to have such a small apparent motion, it has to be very high up in the atmosphere and very far away. I'd guess hundreds of miles away out over the Pacific Ocean.

As a final display, it disappeared for a fraction of a second and then reappeared and made a single, very bright orange flash.

There is some interesting physics in that last flash. When something is moving that fast through the air, a hypersonic shock wave quickly forms. Shock waves produce huge air pressure differentials between the front and back of the shock. So, the small pebble that produced this meteor has a tremendous air pressure difference between the front and the back trying to flatten it like a pancake. Next, consider that the tremendous kinetic energy contained in that astronomical speed is rapidly getting converted into heat as air friction slows the pebble. So the bright green color was whatever element the pebble was made up of burning up like in a spectroscope.

Finally, the bright orange flash occurred when the pebble was finally torn apart by the flattening force and then each tiny mote burned instantaneously in the heat produced when it came to a sudden halt. All that tremendous kinetic energy was instantaneously converted to heat and blast.

This thing was truly the best meteor I've ever seen.

Now to the story of the second best.

I met Tony Barr when he came to Laughlin AFB to learn to fly. The story I heard was that he entered the Air Force Academy in 1985, a skinny, scrawny, bean pole black kid. By his Junior year, he was 6'5" and weighed 240 or so and maybe 1% of that was fat. I can't imagine how a cadet would get steroids or that the Tony I knew would use them. I know that this dramatic change was all due to the effort and discipline of one Tony Barr.

Boxing is a big sport at USAFA. I look back on the two boxing matches I was forced to fight in phys ed with some pride - but also with happiness that I'll never have to do that again. Boxing is a tough thing to do. It's hard to train for and it takes a lot of dedication to be good at it. Every year the best cadet boxers compete in the "Wing Open." You have to be tough and good to win the title. Tony won the heavy weight title there in 1988 and 1989.

Tony did well enough in Pilot Training that we kept him with us to be an instructor pilot after he graduated - A "First Assignment IP" (FAIP). Only the top 25% of graduates are chosen - and most don't want to be one. You don't go to pilot training to spend the next four years of your life watching a student pilot learn to fly. But the FAIPs suck up the assignment and do a great job with discipline and pride. Tony was one of the best.

By the time Tony's four years were ending, the "Peace Dividend" in the early 90s was drying up fighter pilot assignments and we were forced to send our FAIPs out to transport aircraft assignments. Tony was so well liked and respected that our leadership wrangled him a slot to go to Randolph AFB in San Antonio where he would teach new Instructor Pilots. This also gave him a better shot a getting a fighter assignment the next time he came up for one.

Not soon after he got to Randolph AFB, he was riding his motorcycle and hurt badly in a crash. A month later he was recovering somewhat and scheduled for an MRI to better decide how fix his injuries. During the MRI, he had an anaphylactic shock reaction to the dye and died.

All of us who knew him were devastated. A contingent of us drove the 3 hours over to San Antonio to attend his service. That afternoon we drove back and got into the parking lot after dark. We spent one last moment discussing the day and commiserating and then we turned to walk to our separate cars.

At that exact moment, a bright green meteor, much like the one I just described except it was moving much faster, flashed down from the sky. We all stood there transfixed for a moment. Esteemed Reader, I am not the most religious of guys. In fact, organized religion strikes me as a power play. But consider this: the pebble that made what I've come to think privately of as "Tony's Meteor" started out it's life eons ago in the whirling, mad, chaotic, orrery that is the solar system. It spent an unknown and unmeasurable amount of time circling around undergoing a vast number of gravitational perturbations to arrive at the precise time that the four of us all were looking in the right direction to see it.

If that was a coincidence, it was a cosmically unlikely one. I think not. And I thank the Creator for sending that pebble to tell me that the tragedy that was Tony Barr had a larger purpose.

I remain,

Dad / Geoff