Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Gréyjà Vu

Clouds happen—even in Arizona

Wow! I just returned from the airport where I had to cancel a hop because the clouds were down around 700 feet and it was raining. This is spectacularly unusual for me. In fact, in 12 years of flying here in Arizona, it’s only the ninth time weather (usually it’s the wind) has stopped me from flying with a student.

As I was driving back to the office, with the windshield wipers slapping back and forth, I saw many wild-eyed drivers gawking at a seldom-seen spectacle: wet streets. It was gréyjà vu. I slid into East Coast mode and realized that those of us who live in the Southwest live a form of Disney World existence, compared to much of the rest of the country.

I also remembered how it felt during the two decades plus that I lived in Jersey when I’d make one of my frequent trips to Florida or Arizona. I’d enjoy the surroundings, but every second I was there, I was constantly convincing myself that this wasn’t real life. I’d keep telling myself that the sun-drenched environment the locals enjoyed existed only for the benefit of the tourists. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’d defend my required return to dreary skies and digit-chilling temperatures by visualizing the area as a series of facades erected for movie sets or theme parks. People couldn’t actually be living that kind of life on a daily basis. If they did, it wasn’t fair.

When a pilot moves out of one of the gray states into the sun belt, a weird transformation occurs that sometimes takes years to complete. For one thing, it takes a while to acclimate to the fact that the odds of flying have shifted very much in the pilot’s favor. For instance, if he or she wants to book a flight with me two years from next Wednesday at 1400, there’s almost zero chance that it won’t happen.

Back East, the automatic assumption when I booked any flight was that chances of it happening would be 50/50 at best. For most of the year, I had so little faith in actually flying that before leaving for the airport, I’d call to get a local perspective on the weather. My usual question was “Can you see the hills?”

The hills were four miles away and peaked at about 700 feet. If I could see the hills, I knew I could fly the pattern, and I went. In fact, most eastern CFIs would’ve flown in the weather I canceled in today. There’s no choice there. If they don’t fly in hazy, misty, low-ceiling conditions, they’d barely ever fly.

When I contrast that type of flying attitude with what I see out here, it’s comical: If we get a 3,000-foot solid overcast, the sky is devoid of little airplanes, and I own the airport. The local mindset seems to be “Why fly when it’s cloudy? It’ll be sunny tomorrow.” And they’re usually right. If it’s projected to be cloudy here for three days in a row, the community mounts a city-wide suicide watch (well, almost, anyway).

We see so few low clouds that primary flight instruction actually suffers—we don’t get enough marginal conditions to train students as to what to look for when the weather is anything but perfect. This isn’t a good thing, but at least it’s enjoyable.

There are some aspects of sunshine that most don’t totally appreciate until they’re suddenly immersed in it on a permanent basis. When I moved out here, I was in a super-funk brought about by a divorce, two kids in college, yada, yada, yada—the usual stuff we all seem to go through at some period of our lives. I was only out here about two weeks when I discovered a wonderful thing: It’s nearly impossible to stay in a bad mood when the sun is always shining.

Having a bad day? Just stop at any burger joint, sit out on the patio with your feet up, the sun beating down on you and feel your mood improve. We have so much sun that local blues musicians must stay indoors all day with the blinds drawn or they’ll lose the inspiration they need to “feel” their music.

Of course, there’s July and August. That’s when it’s so hot, we pray for clouds. Hey, no place is perfect!

Yeah, I was a little hacked at losing the hop this morning. It inconvenienced the student and cost me some revenue. But it wasn’t all bad. In reality, we need to see gray, icky skies from time to time, to remind us how lucky we are. Like everything else, if it comes too easily and too frequently, you begin to take it for granted. Not me, however. I’ve been on the other side, and every day, I thank the gods of fate that guided me into my current situation.

You’ll have to excuse me now. The clouds are breaking and it’s time for me to go flying. After all, you didn’t think it was going to stay cloudy all day, did you?

Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & A, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his Website at


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