Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Iceman Cometh by Bob Tilden

Stories from a Night Express Caravan Cargo Pilot

The Iceman Cometh
By Bob Tilden

It was a morning after a clear night had brought the first frost to many areas, but Syracuse laid under a blanket of lake- effect clouds and rain showers. The usual cruising altitude of 6000 feet was just above the cloud tops, in air that was well below freezing. The white expanse of clouds below me was not as flat as usual, and northeast of Ithaca, I had to tunnel through a ridge that crossed my path. As the clouds swallowed the airplane and blotted out the sun, I looked out to the leading edges of the wings and saw the season's first ice forming on the plane.

Near Ithaca the lake- effect clouds start to break up below and around me.

Continuing southwest towards Elmira, the lake- effect undercast disappeared, and I gazed at lush green grasses and green leafy hills. Islands of white frost floated among this landscape, filling the low areas that are sheltered from the breezes and accumulate cold air on clear autumn nights. Descending for landing, I passed two thousand feet over Odessa, and couldn't help but marvel how vibrant and vivid the world seemed in the early morning sun.

Part of this transformation is the result of cooler temperatures and increased rainfall, but every year there seems to be a sharp change in nature's world after the first frost. It is as though the trees and plants embrace their fates and make one last and glorious show before their souls are lifted to heaven. I see this from the plane, but it is an observation that I have made year after year with my feet on the ground.

As I descended lower and passed over the high ground south of Odessa, the iceman gave me a steely flash of his eye. I looked to my right just in time to see my shadow pass into a deep green alfalfa field. With the airplane directly between the sun and the dew covered leaves, the field filled with a shimmering silvery light, a cold metallic brilliance that was devoid of both color and life.

A cross section of our typical winter sky; a layer of clouds resides between 4000 - 6000 ft. whenever the wind is out of the northwest.

Gone for now are the scorching summer days when we could say with assurance "at least it won't snow today", and gone are the evenings when I can look at a forecast of bad visibility with low ceilings and say "that's OK, at least there won't be any ice." Whether we like winter or not, for the next six months we will be working to keep the iceman at bay.

*The author Bob Tilden flew a Caravan for a Night Express cargo company for 10 years and has also written a book, Gone Flyin'. To order it, visit or search Gone Flyin' on


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