Almost all Australian C-17 missions to the USA begin with the Amberley to Honolulu leg.
Every flight to Hawaii is almost identical. You know exactly when you’ll be handed off from one air traffic sector to another, exactly when you have to start using the High Frequency (HF) radios, and you can bet for sure that you’ll be landing on runway 8L at Honolulu. The wind, if any, will be straight down the runway.
After you’ve done a few of these legs, nine hours of ocean crossing isn’t particularly exciting. The flight is purely a means to an end - and that end is open till 2am and serves food till 12. When you’re a fresh copilot, however, everything is new and exciting.
I so clearly remember the first time I did the crossing to Hawaii. I had ticked off so many firsts - first heavy weight takeoff, first time leaving Australian waters, and first time speaking to an air traffic controller with an accent. It was all very exciting, and I was sure to let the Captain know about it every step of the way.
About three quarters into our journey the sun had set, and in the darkness the Captain announced that he was going down the back to get something to eat before we landed. In hindsight he was probably sick of the last seven hours of my puppy-like enthusiasm and needed a break. There were a number of storm cells around, and we were in and out of cloud as we steered around them.
There I was - a bright eyed 25 year old alone at the helm of a $300 million dollar aeroplane, with nothing but thousands of miles of ocean around us. What could go wrong?
I was reading something on the iPad when I saw a flash of light ahead of me. I turned an eye away from the screen and saw it again. And again.
There was no doubt in my mind about what I was witnessing - electricity was definitely jumping across the windscreen.
First just a few little sparks in the corners, then longer and longer streaks across the whole windshield. It was like one of those plasma balls you’d see in a science museum where you’d touch the spherical glass and the electricity would be drawn to your finger…
…Except I sure as hell wasn’t touching the glass - I was confused and terrified!
Suddenly we entered much thicker cloud and the aircraft began to shudder with the turbulence. The powerful red wingtip strobe lights intermittently illuminated the entire cloud a fierce red with every flash. My headset was filled with increasingly loud static, and the airframe began to hum loudly as we rode through the turbulent air.
I’m not one to jump to conclusions, but I could easily have been convinced that we approaching some kind of tear in the space-time continuum. The situation was escalating, and I tightened my harness. What the fuck was going on!
At this point the Captain appeared in the cockpit and slowly began to strap himself back in at a leisurely pace. His face was lit up by the alternating brilliant red wingtip strobes, and the flashes of bright purple electricity out the front. I was just staring at him - how was he so calm? Had he made peace with his fate?
After about 30 seconds he took a break from his sandwich and let out a ‘two hours to go’ sigh.
“Anything happen while I was down the back?”
I turned back to face the the front.
“Oh, that?”, he said, half raising a finger to point at the windshield that closely resembled a malfunctioning electrical grid.
“Have you not seen that before? There are thunderstorms nearby, so there’s static electricity in the air. It’s just discharging on the windshield - totally safe!
He took another bite from his sandwich. He chewed slowly, and then with his mouth half full:
…I probably should have told you that. I bet you were shitting yourself. Ha! Classic copilot”.