Posted by: paywindow7 | September 2, 2020

St. Elmo’s Fire

It appeared out of nowhere. At first glance it was not visible, then, there it was. A glowing sphere comprised of orange lines that reminded of the latitude/longitude lines that encircle planet Earth. No way to measure it of course but it appeared to be a bit larger than a basketball. Just sitting there, on top of an aircraft wing that was moving over two hundred miles an hour.

It’s late night, a few hundred miles east of Miami, flying an ASW patrol mission for the U.S. Navy… a hurricane. We had been searching for a Soviet sub that had been sighted in that area the day before. Soviet submarines liked to hide under storms. They would drop a couple of hundred feet below the surface, which cleared them from most of the storm’s rough water, and the heavy weather made it harder for us to triangulate their position to get a ‘fix’.

When we had gotten ‘on station’ in full search mode we were in a storm but it wasn’t a hurricane…yet. Then the radioman got a call from D.C. giving us orders to break away from the search pattern and head south into the big banger to gather “other information”. The aircraft that storm is trying to destroy is a powerful, and tough, Lockheed P2V-7 Neptune, designed and built to operate and survive in those conditions. The crew inside, flying and operating the airplane and the surveillance and ASW tracking gear it carried and used, not so much.

Riding a thirty ton tin can in a hurricane is interesting. While being thrown around inside the fuselage, in bounce and careen mode, Sir Isaac’s laws of physics come into full focus. In heavy weather, the aircraft is continually pummeled by strong, swirling and churning wind currents that boom it left and right and cause it to suddenly lift up then drop back all within a few seconds causing everything and everyone on board to feel the heavy positive G’s then an eye blink later, the negative G’s that can make anything that isn’t secured, levitate.

On this day at this time I had pushed away from the radar chair, after about four hours of operating the thing, and the relief operator took that seat. I staggered back into the ordinance compartment to catch a quick break before going back to spend some more hours operating the submarine tracking gear. Now I was strapped into the seat next to the observation portal in the aft section of the airplane, portside. Not really sitting more like bouncing, and being slung against the seat harness by the weather forces banging the aircraft.

Looking out that port window was the black night that was no longer black because of the continuous lightning of the storm. Continuous. In that light I could see the tip tank at the end of the port wing that carried extra fuel.

And that’s when it got weird. As I was watching, the orange, sphere shaped object sat in place inboard of the tip tank, briefly, then started to move toward the fuselage in a slight bouncing motion along the top of the wing and as it got close to the port engine nacelle it disappeared. Just vanished.

When I described what I had just seen to other crewmembers all I got were blank looks and suggestions we all rendezvous, post flight, at Murphy’s Lounge ( again) to wind it around the bar.

After the flight, and we were back at the squadron hanger, I went to the office of the weather officer and described what I had seen. He said, since we had been flying in big weather, it was probably some variation of the St. Elmo’s Fire phenomenon. Loopy things happen under those conditions.

Obviously this happened many, many, many years ago but the event has always stayed tucked away in a corner of the memories file in my head. Over those years I’ve done a lot of casual reading and research about weather and atmospheric phenomenon and none of what I’ve read comes close to matching ‘my’ St. Elmo’s Fire trick.

So, who knows. There it was and there I was. Just nature putting on another mind boggler. Good show though.


  1. Cue spooky music, “ooooweeeoooo”
    But Bob, I’m more amazed at the strong constitution of yours and the rest of the crew’s stomachs throughout this weather encounter!
    All in the day of the life of a Navy pilot, eh?

    • Yeah, our airtime was 12 hours per flight until the Cuban Missile quarantine, then it went to 14 hours and motion sickness was a given. So every aircraft (and there were over a hundred of them in different squadrons stationed along the east coast) had a box of ‘barf bags’. The bad thing was after a few …baggies, you would get the dry heaves that were painful. Sooo each aircrew would have a crate full of chicken noodle soup. So when you got the dry heaves you would drink/eat a can of soup. It helped.

      • Aw darn, and I thought you guys were super heroes….with super hero stomachs!

  2. They still are super heroes, Laura. πŸ™‚

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