It was a dark and cloudy Thursday in May as I boarded a Continental 757 for a 4:45 pm flight from Newark to San Francisco. I took my seat and waited for takeoff as I anticipated a relaxing week in northern California. 4:45 quickly came and went, but the plane hadn't budged. At 4:55, the captain's voice echoed through the cabin over the loudspeakers: "There are level 4 and 5 thunderstorms just east of Newark and they're headed our way. The winds in these thunderstorms can reach tornado force and believe me, we wouldn't want to get stuck in one of those. We're going to have to wait it out."
As eager as I was to get to California, I couldn't agree with the captain more, so I just sat back, opened up a good book and waited. We sat there on the runway for nearly two hours as fierce winds and a torrential downpour pelted the plane. Finally, at around 6:30 pm, the storm passed and the plane started taxiing towards the runway.
Unfortunately, we still couldn't take off. Because all the planes in the queue had backed up, we slowly inched our way forward and had to wait our turn in line. It wasn't until 7:00 pm that we were in the air at last. With all the turbulence from the storm, it was a bumpy ride on the way up. A few passengers started to panic and some even started to look a little sick. After about five minutes of being tossed around, the air calmed, the plane leveled out and we were smoothly headed towards San Francisco.
But we weren't headed towards San Francisco for long. Within minutes, the plane shifted ever so slightly off course. The onboard computer noted the plane's errant trajectory, the pilot made a small adjustment, and once again we were headed for San Francisco. Amazingly, this process repeated itself for the entire six hours of the flight. Of course, I couldn't notice this by looking out the window, but I knew it was happening just the same.
You see, an airplane never travels in a perfectly straight line. Even with the most sophisticated guidance systems, a certain amount of drift will always occur due to the effects of the wind. Using a variety of different feedback such as radar, radio beacons, geographical landmarks and aeronautical charts, the navigation equipment in the cockpit picks up the slight change in course. The pilot can then adjust the plane's direction.
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