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Jet Contrails Decorate The Sky

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When I was 10 in 1951, I viewed the first jet that I had ever seen as it flew over Ford Lake where I was fishing while visiting relatives in Ypsilanti, Mich.

Recently, as I drove into Clifton Forge, nine contrails were visible above the mountains that cradle the town. Each contrail was shaped differently due to the difference in the time that they were created from the exhausts from jets having traveled above the Alleghany Highlands.

A contrail is formed by a jet’s hot, humid exhaust from its engines that mixes with the atmosphere that due to the higher altitude has a much lower vapor temperature than the exhaust gas.

Water vapor in the jet’s exhaust condenses and may freeze, causing a cloud to form in the way similar to that which occurs when a person breaths out warm air on a cold day to form clouded breath.

Weather can be predicted by the way contrails appear in the sky. A thin contrail that soon dissipates indicates low humidity at the higher altitude which is an indicator of fair weather. Thick and longer-lasting contrails represent a warning that storm conditions are present.

The U.S. entered World War II five months after I was born in Martin, Ky. at the Beaver Valley Hospital on July 7, 1941, and the development of jets as fighter aircraft came about after my birth during the world-wide conflict that pitted the Allied Forces against Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan.

Since the sunny afternoon in 1951 when a relative pointed out what the silver speck was as it left its silver wake above Ford Lake, I have traveled around the world on jets.

As I gazed at the jet that appeared to be stitching blue sky, I probably would not have believed it if a soothsayer had told me that one day I would have a son who would be flying jets from coast to coast.

Landon Ray Allen, my son who was born in 1977, graduated from VMI in 2000, the last all-male graduating class.

He became a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps where he flew F-18 Hornets, completed two tours of duty in Japan, fought the Taliban in Afghanistan, served as flight instructor at Whiting Field in Florida, and flew for Piedmont Airlines before moving on to fly for Southwest Airlines where he is currently employed as a pilot.

My wife, Cherie Davis Allen, and I were able to watch Landon take off in his single-seat F-18 Hornet on his way from South Carolina to Japan.

Once when I was onboard a jet heading from Toronto to Los Angeles, the pilot announced that an unscheduled landing would take place in Detroit. After the pilot landed the jet in Detroit, I learned that it had lost power in one of its engines.

Another scare on a jet occurred in 1970 near the Himalayan Mountains near Katmandu, Nepal. It was during the monsoon season, and the pilot was flying in a cloud bank thick as soup. Lacking visibility enough to get clearance to land, he announced an unscheduled landing in Calcutta, India.

Some environmentalists claim that contrails contribute to the buildup of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, and some conspiracy theorists claim that harmful chemicals are being released into the atmosphere for nefarious purposes. Thus, the term “chemtrail” has been coined.

Out of all of those days that I spent visiting relatives in Ypsilanti, the only vivid memory that I have retained from the visit 70 years ago is the sight of the first jet that I ever saw and the way it designed the sky with its silver thread.

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