Thursday, March 10, 2011

What are the Heavens Saying?

Norfolk Sky, 2006

On Tuesday the sky was crystal clear and a brilliant blue. Like a lot of photographers, I love a dynamic sky, the more active the better. A brilliant blue sky is a convenient graphic element in the background of a photograph of something else. But by itself, there’s not much story. Tuesday’s sky wouldn’t have had much story had it not been for all the aviation activity.

It’s not uncommon around here to see and hear airplanes. I live just a few miles from one of the U.S. Navy’s busiest master jet bases. Pilots are practicing aircraft carrier landings and other maneuvers at all hours of the day and night every day of the week. It’s noisy, very noisy at times. Navy Seals, too, run a lot of operations out of this airport. Very hush hush. But most of us eventually get used to it and are only drawn to it when some kind of aircraft out of the ordinary goes over.

I’ve long considered the level of activity at the air station to be a good barometer of the state of peace in the world. There’s a noticeable uptick in activity at the base when the United States is contemplating or preparing to step up operations in some unstable, far-flung part of the world. The local scuttlebutt today is that these guys are preparing for something in the Med, perhaps Libya. You never know.

Roiling Sea Clouds, 2003

We’re on the Atlantic coast, so we’re also underneath a primary north-south flyway for commercial airliners. Some days I can sit out in my back yard and count dozens of contrails from airliners headed up and down the coast between Florida, Atlanta, Charlotte, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

Tuesday was one of those days when the sky was full of all kinds of airplanes. I counted more than two dozen contrails at one time. It was as if they were prescribing the lines of a grand sheet of music.

What was different about the day was that there were other planes flying perpendicular to these straight lines, turning the music sheet into more of a checkerboard. I couldn’t see all of the planes themselves. (I was driving, so I also couldn’t photograph them.) The net effect of all this aerial activity was that my mouth stayed open in amazement for the better part of the hour’s drive. I don’t usually get that carried away about jet contrails. But if someone had been with me in the car they’d have probably gotten so tired of me oohing and aahing over the sky that they’d have told me to shut up. It was only when I’d gotten about twenty miles inland from the coast that the sky begin to clear of airplanes and be replaced by a thin, yet artistically arranged array of thin clouds.

It’s hard to look at a dynamic sky and not wonder what the sky’s trying to tell us. I know it’s just nature. But sometimes the sky is so expressive that it’s easy to understand why the ancients came up with so many theories and myths to explain the dynamics of the heavens.

Summer Sky, 2010

A Chance Look at the Sky, South Carolina, 2011


  1. WOW! This is one of my favorite posts--what amazing skies you captured. Those are spectacular!

  2. Where I work is out of the flight path of commercial jets, it's military only. The corridor is used for Langley and for helicopters crossing Hampton Roads from base to base. So I can always sense when something is afoot. The most dramatic sight are the huge transport planes coming in from the Europe and the Middle East. Every time I see them it amazes they can even get off the ground.