Ed and his planes

2010-03-17 16:31:19.000 – Ed O’Malley,  Summit Volunteer

An Observer Hard At Work

I’ve always been interested in history of all types, and in particular, aviation – planes, helicopters, and everything in between. When I was little (early 80s), I wrote a short poem about planes:

Planes, planes, in the sky
Leaving a trail as they go by
Sometime fat, sometimes thin
Nobody knows what’s within
Off they go, without a trace
Maybe to land in a very strange place

During my six weeks on the summit as a volunteer, and two summer visits, I’ve seen very little in the sky, other than clouds, fog, and various forms of precipitation. It seems that insects, birds, and aircraft of all types generally avoid the summit, especially in the winter. Obviously, there are some very good reasons for this lack of airborne activity.

Let’s take insects for example – in the winter, conditions are clearly inhospitable to insects – low temperatures, high winds, and lots of ice and snow. In the summer, things aren’t much better – there is very little vegetation on the summit, limiting their options for a place to hide, and things to eat – and conditions are still relatively extreme when compared to lower elevations.

Birds have it a little better in the winter, but not much (at least they can fly away to somewhere nice). In the winter, they’re also subjected to the same extreme conditions that the summit is known for, and because not much else lives here – animal or vegetable, there is very little food for them. Summer is somewhat better, in that the few animals that live here, and the few plants that grow here are active, and available to eat.

Though planes (and helicopters) are man-made objects, and are immune to the needs of living things, they are not immune to Mt. Washington’s extreme conditions. There is certainly no room to land a plane here, but they too would be buffeted by the winds, and run a fearful risk of icing if they lingered over the summit during stormy times. Visibility is another factor – flying planes close to tall mountains, in low visibility, is never a good thing. Also, much of the time, it is impossible to land or hover a helicopter on the summit, due to the high winds and icing conditions. Having said all that, as you know, there are exceptions to every rule. This week, I have seen one raven, one light plane, two fighter planes, and multiple high-flying jets. The raven’s visit is easily explained – they are always scouting for food, especially in the winter. The light plane? Probably they had heard of the significant snowfall that we had recently, and were taking advantage of the clear weather to see it for themselves. And the fighters were almost certainly on a training flight, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they were also checking out the snow conditions on the mountain, in anticipation of some skiing this weekend. Last, the high-flying jets – most likely commercial flights – bound for who knows where – but maybe to land in a very strange place.

The summit’s weather is very local – a change in altitude of 50 or 100 feet can make a huge difference in the conditions that one experiences. Much of this week, we had low visibility, and high winds – birds and planes could have been flying high above us, or well below us during this time, but we’d never know – no way to see them because of the fog and blowing snow, and no way to hear them because of the roar and whistle of the wind. Luckily, we’ve also had a few days of clear weather.

We are truly isolated here on the summit in the winter, but it is a great opportunity to experience something different, and to help the Observatory. The weather and views are something that most people have never seen, the staff is friendly and knowledgeable, and the food is great! Where else can you have the experience of helping to shovel an 8′ high snow drift in below freezing temperatures, and high winds, all at a height of 6,288 feet?!? If you’d like to see all of this for yourself, and help the Observatory in the process, consider volunteering.

Spending a week on the summit of Mt. Washington in winter is a experience that very few people have had, and that a very small number of people ever will have.


Ed O’Malley,  Summit Volunteer

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