Traveling the Troposphere
Updated: Aug 14, 2020
The engine buzzing in front of my father’s knees, just the other side of the cockpit, dashboard, dials and levers, made it easy to ignore my family’s conversation and yield to its vibration.
I was three years old when I learned to ignore distractions and focus on my own thoughts to the backdrop of the high-pitched buzz saw of the engine that never altered its tone, harmoniously resonating through the fibers of my body. I could see my hand vibrating on the leather armrest as my thumb found the little metal trap door of the ashtray. But instead of seeking something to play with, I turned my attention to the window, my eyes just high enough to see into the realm of clouds. Just like this the hours passed, and helpless to escape I yielded, compelled by the steel Mongolian throat song of the engine.
We flew in slow motion compared to commercial jets I’m used to now. When we flew into a cloud, its stuffing brushed the window in big, startling pieces: clumps of goose feathers or polar bear fur about the size of my hand. I wasn’t tall enough to look down at southern California’s gentle hills and meandering coastline. My flight time, every time, was an opportunity to fly with clouds.
I learned to suspend time like a magic trick, ignoring the nasty smell of aviation leather and my family, chattering loudly. My mind transported me through the double-paned portal next to me. I joined the sky itself and flew, truly traveling the troposphere through the clouds, with no view of what was below.
When there were no clouds to be seen, the flat blue of the sky dazzled me. It was only made dimensional with the diminishing perspective of a cloudscape. Otherwise that blue could be very, very near or infinitely far—visually indefinable without the clouds. I logged dozens of hours of flight time because we flew on sunny Saturdays, and in Tustin, California, that’s every Saturday. My private world was the troposphere, the clouds, and I was never bored.
Five years earlier, in 1954, Dad had been one of the first 7 students at Princeton to test aerodynamics in their brand new wind tunnel. It had its own building in a wooded area on the Princeton campus, designed for the new field of structural aerodynamics for space flight. My father, Richard Vere Warden, had attended Princeton through the Naval Reserve Officer Training Core (NROTC) program. After graduation, Dad and his best friend, Pete Conrad, became pilots in the Navy. They were both going to be astronauts.
Dad was a reconnaissance photographer. The nose cone of his fighter jet was fitted with a remote operated camera instead of a gun. He could aim the camera and take photos while flying alone. He was over the Atlantic Ocean, off Florida, during a routine training exercise, when a life-threatening fever struck. They’re not sure how he landed on the aircraft carrier, or how his tail hook caught the cable just right that transversed the ship’s deck. He had radioed the crew that he was suddenly very ill, so they ran to his plane and when they pulled him out of the cockpit he was unresponsive. It was polio.
He lay unconscious for days with the fever. Polio was busy selecting which muscles of his young, athletic body to destroy. Dad spent a year in the hospital. His doctors told him two things: the fever had probably made him sterile and he would probably never walk again. He determined immediately to prove both wrong. I was conceived in Bethesda Naval Hospital during a conjugal visit, and born there as well, nine months later. My holy birth was the first of several gambles that I should not have survived.
Critical muscles in Dad’s legs and torso were condemned to uselessness, but Dad fought like hell to build his remaining muscles by swimming every day. In a short time he proved the doctor’s second theory wrong as well, learning to walk with a hinged metal brace from ankle to thigh on his left leg. Unlike his pal Pete Conrad, however, he would never be an astronaut. Pete eventually walked on the moon, while Dad went to MIT for his master’s degree as soon as he was recovered, and became an aeronautical engineer, solving reentry dilemmas for a company building spaceships in California, the gig that landed us in Tustin.
Engineers love to explain things, so Dad delighted in shouting aerodynamic lessons to us above the buzz of the engine. He removed our fears as our little Cessna took us up above the clouds.
He taught us that air is a powerful force and all of air’s energy comes from the sun. The earth absorbs the sun’s heat and warms the air on the surface. Hot air rises, causing air currents. As it rises, sometimes quickly, it bumps the bottom of the plane. When it bumps hard enough, the plane jumps around. Little planes jump around a lot more. When the warm air reaches a certain altitude, which depends on the humidity and the temperature of the air, the air releases its moisture. All of the similar air releases its moisture at the same altitude and the droplets form clouds. Once you’re in the clouds, the air calms down and your flight becomes smooth.
Flying into a cloud is cool, but emerging from a cloud is transcendent. You’re, somehow, so much more a part of it all: a traveler in a more profound, more intimate cloud zone, emerging from and entering into clouds in a small plane, going slow enough to see the cloud pieces they’re made of, empowers you, like you own the place.
Traveling through the clouds was a nearly perfect experience. Unfortunately, what goes up always comes down and, after peacefully meandering through my sea of clouds, our decent would eventually come. I’d look up as we lowered, take one last envious mental snapshot of my cloud world as the gray underbellies of backlit cumulus clouds started drifting up and away, and warm air rose to meet the underside of the descending plane. My little belly also rose and fell with the bounce of atmospheric pelts against the Cessna. No amount of well-engineered explanations, or bribes of a quarter, could trick my belly into holding on. I threw up every single time we descended to land.
Somehow it was always just before the touchdown, the minute we dropped onto the landing strip, that my stomach ejected whatever was in it into the waxy bag I had been clutching around my face. “Hang in there,” “Hold on,” “We’re almost there – just a few more minutes.” The pleas from my parents increased steadily as I moaned and whimpered, trying so hard to be good. But I never was. Never bet on a three-year-old’s willpower to overcome the physics of flight, not even for a quarter.
When Dad got a new job heading up the aerospace division of ITT, we moved to New Jersey, far from Southern California’s green fields and coastline – but our weekend flights continued, taking off from Teterboro Airport on Saturday mornings, even if there was a little rain.
All my life I watched my father defeat fear and take risks, achieving his personal and professional goals in spite of Polio’s crippling effects. He never said, “don’t be afraid to try,” or, “you can do anything you put your mind to,” but his example was my ever-present teacher, daring me to dare.
The word troposphere is derived from the Greek tropos (meaning "turn, turn toward, change") and sphere (as in the Earth), reflecting the fact that rotational turbulent mixing plays an important role in the troposphere's structure and behavior. Most of the phenomena associated with day-to-day weather occur in the troposphere. If you’re curious about the physics of flight, learn more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flight