Issue 69: St Elmo’s Fire

Saint Elmo’s fire n. [St. Elmo (Erasmus) bishop and patron saintof sailors]: a flaming phenomenon sometimes seen in stormy weather at prominent points a ll an airplane or ship and on land that is of the nature of a brush discharge of electricity– called also St. Elmo’s light.

… But from my own experience, I know it can also be seen on a kite line. At the end of October 1992 I attended a kite festival in Lunen, Germany, and the weather was quite bad, with a lot of rain. During the nightfly on Saturday I was flying a Sanjo rokkaku kite with two toy panda bears attached at about 200 meters. This kite was a pilot for my night kite which bore reflective material and L.E.D.s showing all sorts of light patterns.

When Ruud Bronnenberg’s kite touched a spot on the line between my two kites, he felt a tickling feeling and at the intersection of the lines a vague glow began to emanate. The phenomenon repeated quickly on the line between the night kite and the rokkaku pilot kite, and with a soft sputtering sound it grew to a length of almost 50mm (about 3 inches). Within moments there were about five spots on the line. When we saw the lights we decided to put our kites down. We soon discovered that the spots could only be removed by laying the lines down in the wet grass and then standing on them.

Many people don’t believe this story, but Trees Verschoor, another kiteflier, told me this was St. Elmo’s fire.

I was curious about this phenomenon and had many questions, so I did a bit of research.

Who is St. Elmo?

In ancient times St. Elmo’s fire was called Castor and Pollux, because according to Greek legend it was seen for the first time on the head of the twin stars. During the Middle Ages it acquired its current name from the Italian bishop St. Elmo,. the patron saint of Mediterranean seamen.

Actually, Elmo is a corruption of the name Erasmus. Legend says Erasmus died during a severe storm at sea. In his last moments he promised to return and show himself to the crew if they survived the stann. After his death, the crew waited anxiously for a sign. Then a strange glowing light appeared at the masthead. It was Erasmus, fulftlling his promise to the crew and in their minds becoming their protector. Since then, when sailors see 51. Flmo’s fire they generally interpret it as a sign that the worst of the stann is over and the crew will survive. Christopher Columbus is said to have cheered his mutinous crew on the long voyage to America by pointing 10 a glow at the masthead and predicting an end to their troubles. Ferdinand Magellan often wrote in his journal about the feelings of hope that the lights of St. Elmo inspired during times of danger. But sailors say if 51. Hmo’s fire comes down onto the ship’s deck instead of the masts or rigging, this is an ominous sign of danger or death.

Another legend says Erasmus was a Syrian bishop in the early fourth century who died a martyr. His remains were honored in a small seaside village, Gaeta. Because the village was populated by fishennen and sailors, Erasmus was made patron saint of sailors. When superstitious sailors observed a glowing light at the masts of their ships, they assumed it was their patron saint, Erasmus, watching over them.

What is the “fire”?

St. Elmo’s fire manifests as a vague glow, usually in tall objects such as masts, steeples and fences. It is normally present during unstable weather conditions induding rain, hail or snow and is most prevalent during thunderstorms. The flashes of light, which may become a few centimeters long, can be very lively and have a red, white, blue or violet color. Sometimes they are noticed as a mixture of small dancing flames, in some cases accompanied by a rustling or crackling noise that sounds like twigs burning. On other occasions the flames stand still and glow, and a tickling feeling can be felt. Frequently, airplane pilots can see St. Elmo’s fire along the frames of their windows and wings when they fly through charged clouds. They nickname it “the little ghost.” Campers may also see it in mountain regions when thunderstorms are passing over high peaks.

When you see it for the first time, I’m sure you’ll be startled, since the objects it touche<; often seem to be enveloped in the glowing light. Don’t be frightened – St. Elmo’s fire is typically innocent in nature, and not life-threatening as in the case of lightning. However, in certain situations St. Elmo’s fire can be dangerous. Some believe it destroyed the German airship Hindenburg in 1937 by causing the hydrogen gas in the airship’s balloon to explode.

Why does it happen?

St. Elmo’s fire is an exchange of electrical charges from a spot with too much charge to a spot with not enough charge. It doesn’t come about by means of a spark, as in the case of lightning. With St. Elmo’s fire the process is executed gently, through so-called glow discharges. These discharges are created when the air’s electrical field reaches some 10,000 volts per centimeter and the current is over 0.0001 amperes per square centimeter.

On the left, the positive discharge
form; on the right the negative
discharge form.

There are positive and negative discharges. Positive discharges are in the shape of a plume of light with fine beams on a stem, that are far apart and can be a few centimeters long. Negative discharges are settled on a bright point and are of a fragile structure, so that the limited beams cannot be distinguished. The plumes of light are always smaller than one centimeter and are separated a little.

St. Elmo’s fire generally appears when the worst of a storm is over. Thus, the light appears because of glow discharges from the end of a storm-not because St. Elmo is looking out for the sailors’ welfare.

Can it happen to kitefliers?

From this information, it seems probable. The lights of St. Elmo may be seen in the future by some kitefliers.

   Jan Fischer

Illustration by George Peters

If anyone else experiences St. Elmo’s fire or already has tales to tell about it, please post to the Kitelife Forum so that others may learn from your experience.

This article was first published in Dutch in the journal of the Tako Kichi Vliegerclub Noord-Holland, translated to English for Kite Lines magazine in Summer of 1996 (volume 12 issue 1), now archived in PDF format and available for download in the Kitelife online collection.