Remember that time in Asia when the Flying Classroom dodged an erupting volcano, escaped a super typhoon, got fumigated by customs officials, outran an ice storm, and navigated through at least 10 foreign air spaces? Barrington sure made it look effortless, but believe me, it wasn’t.
Throughout this journey, a crack team of meteorologists and flight planners at Universal Weather & Aviation in Houston, Texas has been working around the clock to keep him safe in the skies. In 2007, Keith "The Guardian" Foreman was the flight planner behind Barrington’s record-setting solo flight around the globe. As Barrington wrote in his book, Touch the Sky:
Keith helped me get permits to fly over the countries I needed to cross. Not every country is friendly with the United States, and I didn’t want to get shot down for flying into a hostile nation’s airspace. He also found me a local handler for each stop. The handlers would reserve hotel rooms, set up ground transportation, and get me legal permission to enter the country.
Keith would have another role to play once I was airborne—a role that could mean life or death for me. He would tell me if raging storms, high winds, thick fog, or other wild weather lay ahead. I had no weather radar on board Inspiration, so I’d have to rely on a radio and a satellite phone for vital updates from Keith.
This time around, Barrington did have weather radar, but he still needed to hear Keith’s voice in the cockpit.
“Even in the middle of the night here in Texas,” says Keith, “there’s a ton happening on the other side of the world. Their day is our night.”
Universal Weather & Aviation handles nearly 4,000 flight legs a month, assisting pilots on all seven continents. To meet this demand, the company has teams at airports around the globe and 650 employees at their headquarters in Houston.
Dave Houle is part of the meteorology team. He says he became a “weatherhead” while surfing off the coast of Rhode Island as a teenager. He would track storms to predict when and where to find the best waves. After studying meteorology in college, he got a job at Universal Weather & Aviation right out of school, preparing flight plans and weather briefings for clients.
“How do you prepare a weather briefing?” I asked.
“First, you start up high,” he said, pointing to a swirling mass of clouds on one of the four monitors encircling his desk. “You’re looking at the steering. What kind of support does this storm have? How strong is it? Where is it going?”
“Then you work your way down to the surface.” He clicked a button and the screen became a lava lamp of green, blue, and red blobs. “Where are the problematic areas? Where’s the low pressure, the rain, hail, and thunderstorms?”
At the moment, Dave was rerouting a flight around Tropical Storm Eduoard in the Atlantic. As a meteorologist, you get to know storms as living beings with names and distinct life stages. Atlantic storms first start as an “open wave” coming off of Africa near the Canary Islands. Within hours, the World Meteorological Organization will name that system. During the development stage, Dave watches the storm gather strength as it crosses the Atlantic. Eventually, the Gulf Stream will carry the storm north along the coast of the U.S. As the storm moves over cold water, it begins to lose strength—or “occlude”—and dies.
On a second monitor, I saw more blobs of color covered in hundreds of little lines with barbs on them. Dave explained that these show wind speeds in the upper atmosphere. A closed barb represents wind speeds of 50 knots. Long barbs equal 10 knots and short ones equal 5. So help me out here. A line with one closed barb, three long barbs, and one short one would represent winds at what speed? (Answer at the end of the post.)
Knowing wind speeds in the sky helps Dave predict where turbulence will occur. “A lot of clients are white-knucklers,” he said. “They want a route through as little turbulence as possible.”
“What causes turbulence anyway?” I asked.
“What are wind shears?”
“When fast-moving air slams into a body of slow-moving air, the fast-moving air has nowhere to go but straight up. That’s a wind shear. In big storms, the shears can be so strong that the fast-moving wind can literally shear the wings right off an airplane.”
Universal Weather & Aviation tries to avoid that.
While meteorologists can help pilots around such conditions should they arise, the best bet is to steer clear of bad weather in the first place. That’s where flight planners like Jason Davidson come in. Jason studied aerospace science at the University of North Dakota. He also has 2,000 flight hours, flying and training people to fly single-engine props. “So I know the cockpit side and the air traffic control side,” he said. That's helpful when your job is to ensure both sides work together.
Jason began to unfold a large map covered in tiny numbers, arrows, and acronyms. “If you’re going on a road trip,” he said, “a road atlas will tell you what roads to take. But when you’re flying, you can’t go off-road.” Air traffic controllers guide pilots along airways, which are essentially highways in the sky. Pilots fly from one waypoint to another like cars passing imaginary road signs. Waypoints on the ground are marked with 3-letter acronyms like ANC and GCR; waypoints in the sky get 5-letter names like AMOND and CHIKI. These predefined points avoid obstructions, maintain radio contact, and keep pilots in good graces with foreign governments.
There also aren’t any gas stations in the sky, so flight planners use airway charts in conjunction with “fuel burn data tables” to make sure pilots don’t run out of fuel halfway. For example, if you are cruising along at 450 mph at 37,000 feet for 200 nautical miles and you know how much your airplane weighs, the table would tell you how much fuel you’ll burn on that flight leg. Add up all the flight legs and you know how much fuel you need for the entire trip.
If only it were always that straightforward. The Flying Classroom got thrown a curveball in Australia. A few days before we arrived in Darwin, the Australian government informed Keith that they weren't going to allow Barrington to fly above 28,000 feet. Typically, the Flying Classroom flies at 40,000 feet where the air is thinner and you burn less fuel. To fly at lower altitudes, Keith had to start all over with the fuel burn tables and give Barrington a new flight plan. Like I said before, nothing on a global flight is easy.
In September, days before the launch of the Flying Classroom, Barrington went to Houston to go over last minute logistics with Keith. Whenever they get together, the two often reminisce about Barrington’s solo flight in 2007. Sometimes they talk about the time he got detained in Calcutta, India. Sometimes they talk about the time Barrington lost radio contact over the North Atlantic. They always talk about Shemya, Alaska though—the day that was almost Barrington’s last.
As Barrington remembers in Touch the Sky:
On June 10, I woke up at 5 a.m. and called Keith to check on the weather. A window of calm was opening over the North Pacific. Today would be my only chance. … The islands of Japan disappeared behind me. For the next 1,500 miles, there would be no place to land. … Even in my thermal suit I was chilled to the bone. The temperature outside the plane’s thin hull dropped to -40°F. The winds were raging between 70 and 110 miles per hour. Below, the whitecaps of the Pacific Ocean seemed to be waiting for me.
Still, he pressed on, knowing that help was just a satellite phone call away.
“I truly felt alone,” Barrington said to Keith in September. “You were like a coach.”
“Well,” said Keith. “I felt it was the next best thing to being in the cockpit with you.”
Just an hour from Shemya, I encountered a wall of clouds that rose as high as the eye could see. … As I climbed above 12,000 feet I started to breathe bottled oxygen. I kept climbing, but the wall of clouds looked like it would never end. Gradually, my oxygen supply ran out. I started to feel light-headed and weak. Finally, at 21,000 feet, I cleared the top of the cloud bank. Before me was a beautiful sight: a sea of white, fluffy clouds with the sun casting a golden glow over them. I stayed above the clouds as long as possible, even though my fingers started to turn blue from the lack of oxygen. As I approached Shemya, I gritted my teeth and descended…
After eight days in Shemya, hemmed in by fog and high winds, Barrington flew to Anchorage and began a homecoming tour through the American west.
“My proudest moment was seeing you touch down in Houston,” Keith said.
This afternoon, more than seven years later, Captain Irving touched down in Houston once more. The Flying Classroom is almost home. And its coach couldn’t be prouder.
NEXT STOP: Dallas, Texas
Answer: 85 knots