Rambling travelogs from a world traveler

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Unknown Rider

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.  It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.   Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed." ~ Albert Einstein 

Gentle Readers and Loved Ones,

The other morning flying from Guanghzhou, China to Bangkok, Thailand, a small saga occurred that I think you might find interesting and maybe even funny.  It ties together current events concerning the recent disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, the planet Venus and an old bar story that happened years ago.

As many of my aviation stories go, this story will require some ‘splainin’.

Guanghzhou has the ICAO 4 letter Identifier of ZGGG.  (Z is the country ID label for China just like K is the ID for the US.)  Guanghzhou is difficult to type and say, so I tend to refer to it as “Ziggy”.  Ziggy is our Asian Freight Hub and we fly in and out of there frequently.

Here is a map of our route of flight.  VHHH is Hong Kong, VTBS is Bangkok.

Next comes an astronomical discussion.  The planet Venus is an inner planet and this constrains where it can appear in our night sky.  It never gets higher than 45-47 degrees above or below the sun.  If you have a telescope and look at Venus, it behaves like the moon.  It has phases and depending on its position in relation to the sun it goes from a slender crescent to a full Venus. Mercury does too.

One would think that it would be at its brightest when it is full just as the moon is, but one would be wrong.  When it is full, it is on the other side of the sun and it is very close to limb of the sun and lost in the sun’s dazzle.  When it is roughly a half Venus, it is relatively close to the earth, climbs as high in the sky as it can and is very bright.  This picture illustrates that property.

The picture is from http://www.theplanetstoday.com/ and shows the relative position of the inner planets on the night of this story.  It shows how Venus is at max elongation right now.  When we took of from Ziggy, Venus was just rising in the east and my inner astronomy geek noted that Venus was now a morning star.  The last time I had seen it was in the west and an evening star.  

Generally, planets don't twinkle like stars do.  But when Venus is very bright and close the horizon it does "scintillate" and change colors.  It can be quite striking.  

Next, the old bar story.  Gentle Readers, if you have an impressionable young one who will read this, you might want to do some parenting here and read ahead.

Years ago when I was newly hired at FedEx we wound up on a layover somewhere in “flyover country”.  Some good ol’ boys in the bar had discovered we were FedEx pilots and had struck up a conversation with us.  As the conversation progressed, I could tell that one of the fellows had something on his mind and was working up the courage to ask. 

Finally, he said: “Geoff, you boys in FedEx fly all night, don’t cha?”  
I admitted that we did.  
“Well….I bet you boys see some shit.”

It took me a moment to realize he wanted me to tell him a UFO story.  I had to disappoint him and say that I have spent a lot time looking at the night sky from a flight deck and from the ground with the naked eye, binoculars and telescope and I have never seen anything that I can’t explain. 

So…two mornings ago, we were cruising at 34000’ above Mean Sea Level and had just entered Sanya Control airspace.  This is near the east coast of Hainan Island which in the big scheme of things is not too far from the airspace where the Malaysian 777 disappeared.  The story I am about to relate gives me the impression that people flying in that part of the world are just a little on edge.  I have never had anything like this happen to me before in my 11000+ hours of aviation.

When we checked in with Sanya Control, a new Chinese voice came on the radio.  You could tell that he had a little better command of the English language that your average Chinese controller and that he was either a little nonplussed or a little embarrassed or both. 

“FedEx, we have a report of an….unknown object.  It may be at your 9 o’clock and a little above you and about 45 kilometers away.  Do you see anything?” 

That is my side of the airplane and I turned to look.  All I saw when I looked out was Venus…which was very bright and hanging right there above the horizon.  I noted that it was as bright as I’ve ever seen it and looked kind of like an airplane’s landing light when the airplane is roughly 5 miles away or so.  And….a light bulb started to dawn in my head…..  There was no other traffic anywhere out there. 

We answered back negative visual contact with any traffic at our 9 o’clock.  Sanya said he had reports and it may move closer to us as we traveled further over Hainan Island.  We repeat “No Joy on the traffic.”

Sanya continued to insist that he had reports of an unknown traffic both to us and to other aircraft as we passed by them.  He sounded like he was growing frustrated with our inability to see whatever it was. This continued for the roughly 20 minutes it took us to fly through his airspace.  We switched over to Ho Chi Minh Control never having seen anything. 

So, using my aviation Sherlock Holmes Mystery Decoder Ring, what I surmise happened is that some previous crew flying along saw Venus low in eastern sky, maybe scintillating in multi-colors, thought it was an airliner or …gawd help me… a UFO….lighting him up with a bright landing light kind of beam and reported it to Sanya Control. 

I always thought that UFO stories being put down as Venus or Swamp Gas or Weather Ballons were funny.  Now I have my very own UFO story from the mysterious Orient.

On that happy note, I remain,

Dad / Geoff

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