Wonders Above

circular rainbow over green fields
On his first skydive in 2016, Anthony Killeen took this shot of a circular rainbow in New Zealand.

Most pilots and passengers, if they really think about it, would rather their flights be uneventful and free of surprises. Safer that way. But sometimes the unexpected sight or sound can provide a thrill, or at least a good story.

Through the Rainbow

I was a novice skydiver. Circa 2002. Moss Point, Mississippi. High noon in August, and partly cloudy. As we climbed in the twin-engine Otter, I marked the cloud bottoms at 4,000 feet. Cloud tops at about 7,000. During the jump run at 14,000, it was clear above, but a cloud moved in under us. I exited. With the sun directly overhead during freefall, I noticed rainbow colors near the edges of the cloud. The rainbow appeared to be moving as I freefalled (freefell?) toward the cloud. As I reached terminal velocity of 120 mph, I noticed that the rainbow was not an arc, but a perfect circle. Because the reflected light angle changed rapidly as I fell, the rainbow diameter shrank steadily. The colors intensified. Wow. For the next 30 seconds the rainbow brightened and raced inward toward zero-diameter. At the precise moment it coalesced at the center, I fell through that center and into the fog of the cloud beneath. (Note: In case you’re wondering, I did not smack into a pot-o-gold....) Did I fall into a parallel universe? Nope. Dang it. I continued my freefall and deployed my canopy without incident at 3,000 feet. The image of that 360 rainbow has stayed with me ever since. Eric Noel Weill, Hattiesburg, MS

It Looked Like a Miniature Sun

I was a navigator in the U.S. Air Force in late 1978, flying MC-130 aircraft. We were at flight level 240, traveling at 280 knots, heading SSW from South Korea toward Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, over the northern Ryukyu Islands. We were passing very close to a thunderstorm when suddenly a one-foot-diameter ball of bright light yellow energy—ball lightning—came into our aircraft just behind the flight engineer’s station, close to the cockpit escape hatch. I was about four feet from it as it moved through the bulkhead at flight station 245. I ran down the stairs to the cargo compartment and watched it move at about 10 feet per second through the centerline of the fuselage and out the fantail. The loadmasters witnessed it also. It looked like a miniature sun. I didn’t feel any heat from it and couldn’t hear any noise from it because I was on headset. It didn’t do any damage to the aircraft that I know of.  Charles Anderson, Kennewick, WA

The Scream of a Sabre

As a 150-hour private pilot, on a Saturday morning in 1983 I left my home base at Clover Field (south of Houston’s Hobby airport), in my 1969 Piper Cherokee 160. I was en route to meet my brother-in-law and others, intending to fly to La Grange, Texas, for lunch and good conversation.

I contacted air traffic control and received permission to travel across the edge of Hobby’s airspace. Mere seconds later, ATC called urgently saying, “Cherokee 07U, fast-moving traffic your 3-o’clock, one-half mile....” Depressing the mic button to respond that I’d be looking, all of a sudden—and I mean all of a sudden—an F-86 Sabrejet screamed past at my altitude, angling across our bow, no more than 150 feet away. I could plainly see the pilot! His wake turbulence rocked my Piper pretty good for a few seconds. Then I heard ATC laughingly say, “Well, I guess you did see the traffic!”

It seems that in my state of fright I had not released the mic button and had loudly screamed into the radio! After calming down, I contacted ATC and we discussed the situation. It turns out that a wealthy fellow from Houston restored ex-military aircraft, and the F-86 was his most recently completed project. I must say, for my one-second viewing it was the most highly polished airplane I’d ever seen! Ralph Hall, Flint, TX

That Was No A-7

In early 1985 had the honor to lead a flight of four F-16s on a dawn mission to a range complex close to a prohibited-fly area near Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. As we neared the range soon after sunrise, air traffic control called out “A-7 traffic approaching.” I quickly saw a black, rectangular-shape airplane that appeared to be from Mars, not Nellis! I radioed back that I had the traffic in sight, but “it was no A-7.” 

After completing the otherwise routine mission, I noticed a white-topped staff car waiting for me as I parked the jet. Not a usual sight. As I climbed down the ladder, I was told by the high-ranking officer that the airplane I saw was indeed an A-7, and if I ever saw that particular A-7 again, and called it out on the radio as not an A-7, there would be hell to pay!

Years later I learned that it was a still-very-secret F-117 stealth attack aircraft that I had seen, and my in-the-clear radio call had caused quite a stir in Operations that morning. I never saw another “A-7!” That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Steve Cawthon, Henderson, NV


On display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar of the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, is a Marine Boeing Vertol CH-46 helicopter flown by USMC Lt. Col. John L. Pipa during medevac and combat logistic missions in Vienam in 1970. Above it, in the photo at left, is the Sikorsky Coast Guard HH-52A amphibious helicopter I flew on search-and-rescue missions in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1969.

Other than being on display in the Museum, there is an additional link between these airplanes. Lt. Col. Pipa and I were good friends, and we married sisters while still in flight training. (Lt. Col. Pipa passed away in 2020.) What are the odds that two helicopters from two different services, once piloted by two brothers-in-law, would be displayed within feet of each other in the Smithsonian? Thomas C. Schafer, Terrytown, LA

Eagle Dance

I have been flying hang gliders since 1976 and have logged more than 500 flights and 1,200 hours. On one of my most memorable flights, I was foot-launching off my favorite site on Mount Ascutney in southeast Vermont. Launch was uneventful, and I soon found a nice climb in a thermal. After a few turns, I noticed I had company. A bald eagle had joined my thermal—or I had joined his—and we were matching climbs and turns 180 degrees apart at the same altitude. We continued our dance for about 12 revolutions; me watching him and him watching me. About then, the eagle turned up, showed his talons, let out a screech, and was gone. Flying does not get any more pure than that flight many years ago. John Arrison, Ascutney, VT

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This story is a selection from the August/September issue of Air & Space magazine

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