At home in the night sky – the most honest place I know

I get to see a lot of the world in my day job. Oddly enough, most of the places look the same after a while. I see two rows of blue lights and, if I keep the plane in the blackness between them, they will lead me to two rows of white lights. I know that if I keep the plane in the blackness between the two rows of white lights and, if I add enough power and gain enough speed, eventually I’ll feel the last clunk of the runway being left behind as we climb into the blackness.

I do a lot of night flying.

Runway lights
Follow the lights and they lead you home – but were you watching along the way?

On this night, the winds were out of the north at 12 knots with three miles visibility in light drizzle and mist. The first layer of clouds was at 300 feet with a broken layer at 500 feet and overcast at 1100 feet. On takeoff, it was just an instant of watching the last of the white lights fall away from the nose when I transitioned inside and onto the gauges, or more accurately, eyes onto the “glass.”

In about as much time as it took for you to read those words, we had slipped into the inky murk of the low-hanging clouds. Other than the thump of the landing gear retracting into the wheel wells and the slight rumble felt with the retracting of the flaps, there was almost no sense of motion. The numbers on my altitude tape continued to get bigger, so that was good, the heading bug was where it was supposed to be, the attitude indicator showed blue on top and brown on the bottom, and the airspeed numbers got bigger and then settled where they belonged at our climb speed. All was right with the world because the instruments say it’s so, at least in my little world anyway.

Once all was confirmed to be behaving properly, I peeked over the instrument panel and was greeted with two grayish white javelins from our landing lights spearing into the layers of broken clouds. I knew that if we kept climbing eventually I’d see the stars. And then like a fish jumping out of the lake, we popped out. The difference, though, is that the fish falls back down to the water – I fall up into the night sky!

We’re leaving New York’s JFK airport headed to Europe, to the old Hahn Air Base just outside of Frankfurt, Germany. Tonight’s flight will be taking us 3359 nautical miles across mostly water and is planned for six hours and 23 minutes, takeoff to touchdown. Looking at the flight plan, I convert the fuel burn that is listed in kilos first to pounds and then to gallons.

It’s my own check as to the madness in the world when I then convert the gallons figure into how much flying I could do in my Piper Cherokee back home. We’ll burn just over 22,500 gallons of jet fuel tonight. Converting that to avgas, that’s enough to fly well over 2000 hours in the Cherokee, even if I push it hard, and if I still had the Champ – well, that’s an awful lot of flying!

747 on ground
The hardest part? Taxiing to the runway.

Taxiing a Boeing 747 at a big, busy airport is probably the greatest challenge of the night. There’s a lot of airplanes moving around, rapid-fire instructions from the controllers and many different taxiways with a lot of intersections that allow for plenty of opportunities to mess up. Eventually, we find our way and join the conga line, patiently inching ahead for our turn to takeoff.

Finally, we depart runway 31L with an immediate left turn toward the Canarsie VOR. We’re handed off to departure control and crossing Canarsie, we turn left again and head outbound on the 176 degree radial. We then receive vectors for the climb to keep us out of the arriving traffic flow. The airspace is very busy with JFK, LaGuardia, Newark and Teterboro all sharing the same neighborhood.

We level at our initial altitude of 5000 feet followed shortly with step climbs, being cleared higher just as we approach the next assigned level off. We continue southbound just long enough to begin to wonder when or if we’ll start heading toward Europe. We’re then handed off to New York Center, level at 17,000 ft. we get a turn to the northeast with a heading to join our assigned route and we climb to our initial cruise altitude of FL330.

We’re handed off to Boston Center and continue northeast bound up the coast of the U.S. We cross into Canada’s airspace splitting New Brunswick and Nova Scotia then over Gander on the island of Newfoundland. We do one last navigation system check to make sure the airplane is where it thinks it is and coast out of Newfoundland joining our assigned route for the ocean crossing. “Feet wet” to “feet dry” is about three hours or so.

NATs
The North Atlantic Tracks are the aerial highways between North America and Europe.

We’re filed for one of the North Atlantic Tracks, NAT track Tango tonight. This routing will take us across the North Atlantic, passing various points in space identified only with Lat/Long coordinates, finding land again over Ireland. Our assigned altitude for tonight is FL340 and we begin our climb to be level before our first fix on the NAT track.

As we start the crossing, the weather offered generally smooth air with an occasional light bump. Not much moon tonight, but the sky above is clear with almost unlimited visibility. Dancing in the heavens are brilliant stars and constellations to keep us company as we make our way. I’m always amazed with what goes on in the night sky. It’s funny, Orion seems to follow me wherever I go; tonight I can see Betelgeuse and Rigel and the stars Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka shining brightly on his belt. Way up to the north I can see Cassiopeia. I start humming that old Bobby Vee tune, “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.” In the song, the chorus trails off with “So remember when you tell those little white lies that the night has a thousand eyes.” How true!

The sky is the most honest place I know of on this earth. There are a just few basic rules to the sky and if you follow them the sky rewards you with good flying and a long wonder-filled life; violate those rules and you’re in for much wailing and gnashing of teeth. You can’t fool the sky, and although it will challenge you from time to time, the sky doesn’t lie.

For instance, if there is a thunderstorm ahead it is considered best practice to fly around it, giving it a wide berth, wishing it well and letting it be on its way as you pass by. However, there is nothing to say that you couldn’t play the matador and wave your aeronautical cape at it, taunting it. You may even decide to make like an NFL running back, tuck the ball in close, lower your head and charge straight up the middle. This technique is generally frowned upon, though, and you could find yourself transitioning from an airplane pilot into an experimental lawn dart driver in rather quick fashion.

Stars in sky
The night has a thousand eyes.

If I happen to find a supercell thunder-boomer staring me down, my technique is to take what I see through the front window and, depending upon which way the wind is blowing, put it in one of the side windows and keep it there until I’m well on the other side. Then, with a tip of my hat, I bid the storm farewell, and I continue on my way. Wimpy? Maybe. But, I have danced with many thunderstorms and I am still very much alive. So there!

I assume my late night cruising position, lights down low in the cockpit, forearm resting on top of the instrument panel, chin resting on forearm, face as close to the windshield as I can get without leaving a smudge. I’m struck with an intimidating thought. The only thing between my forehead and a 470 mile per hour -54C breeze is about one and a half inches of glass. I slide my chin back just a little and whisper a word of thanks to the Boeing engineer who designed the windshield, hoping he had a good math day while he was doing his figuring. Mind drifting back to the sky, every once in a while, a shooting star. I look to the heavens and thank the maker of all this, I can’t explain it; it is a mystery to me, and in awesome wonder I sit back and enjoy its magnificent beauty, I am very thankful!

Spirit of St Louis cockpit
Lindbergh didn’t have a coffee pot or a lav.

As we cross 30 degrees west longitude, which is generally considered the middle of nowhere, I can’t help but to think about how Charles Lindbergh found himself out over this same ocean, flying much lower, battling all the North Atlantic had to throw at him, on one engine, and all alone. With that thought, I excuse myself from the flight deck, walk back to the galley, have a stretch and fix myself a nice hot cup of coffee. Heading back to the cockpit I pass the lav, again my thoughts are with Charles Lindbergh, 33 and a half hours without a galley for coffee or a bathroom – that poor guy!

I silently thank all those who have gone before me, advancing aviation to the point where I find myself tonight, nested in a reasonably comfortable, multi-positioned, electronically-operated high-back chair with adjustable arm rests inside a pressurized cabin environmentally controlled with heating and air conditioning that’s adjustable to my liking, a coffee pot, a bathroom, and four engines. Life is good!

Coasting in over Ireland, we pass just north of Shannon and then pass a little south of Dublin. We cross England, flying over London and then across the English Channel.

Crossing the channel, my thoughts move to the many WWII 8th Air Force bomber crews who crossed here, many never to return. I can almost feel the energy in the air, the British night raids followed by the U.S. day raids, airplanes everywhere, fighters twisting, turning, fighting and some falling. Their cargo, bombs to stop oppression and to keep the world free. My cargo… well just cargo. Cargo of who knows what for who knows whom to be delivered to who knows where.

We begin our descent over Brussels, into the dawn of a new day beginning.

16 Comments

  • Great article!! After reading I decided we are going to flight see Chicago after dark tonight,

    Thanks for the reminder!!!

  • Good story. It’s interesting how often we do think of Charles Lindbergh and that super-human feat he accomplished. Most folks don’t consider it too much anymore, but he really was a remarkable fellow, an exceptional aviator. He flew over thirty-three hours across a vapid continuum in an airplane that was woefully unstable, he had no gyros, he operated in IMC much of the time, he had no auto-pilot, he was suffering dangerously from a lack of sleep, he had no means of navigating except ‘DEAD’ reckoning, and even then he had to read the wet compass backwards. I think the odds of anyone else being successful today under those conditions would be very poor. I wouldn’t want to bet on it. Perhaps someday those who pilot craft through atmosphere and space will pity us ancient aviators of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries who were constantly restrained by the outdated aerodynamic laws that decreed the need to maintain airflow of sufficient speed and density over anachronistic wings.

  • Hi Dave,

    Glad you liked the story!

    Excellent insight into the challenges Charles Lindbergh faced, I love history and am a big fan of Lindbergh. I think one of the best, most insightful passages I’ve read on his crossing was in the first chapter of his book “Autobiography of Values”. The book is probably long out of print but it’s a great read and well worth tracking down a copy. And, I think you’re right, any of us in today’s world would be hard pressed to repeat his flight under similar conditions with the equipment he had to work with. It would be fun to try though!

    Your last sentence intrigues me. I’ve had similar thoughts as well……

    Thanks for your thoughts!!

    Matt

  • No offense intended by his wife was by far the better writer.

    Read North to the Orient if you don’t believe me.

  • I have read her books too, she is an excellent writer. I recommend “North to the Orient” as well.

    Their daughter Reeve does some nice writing also.

    Matt

  • Hi Matt: Beautiful writing. You put me right back into the cockpit that I left 18 years ago … but who’s counting? I had exactly the same night cruising position as you and to be honest I was probably a bit selfish when I turned down the cockpit lighting to a bare minimum. Although I always asked consensus I knew some of my F/O’s weren’t comfortable with it but I did it anyway … I knew sooner or later the privileged unique gift of night over the Atlantic would one day abruptly end and be denied me forever and I thought, “what the heck.”
    That and two other things jumped out at me your playful taunting of thunderstorms and musing about WWII crews.
    Being a Canadian every time we approached 10 west I would wonder what the crew of Air India Flight 182 were thinking just before they were blown out of the sky early on the morning of June 23rd 1985 enroute from Montreal to London. Were they like me rubbing the grittiness out of their tired eyes staring at the glaring intensity of the rising sun after hours of darkness? Were they looking forward to a comfortable bed in a London hotel as I was? Were they wondering what they were going to do in London later in the day? Per capita for Canada, more Canadians were killed in the bombing than in 911. Although the tragedy took place thirty years ago this month, I doubt it will get much media coverage. For Canadian politicians and indeed the general population the tragedy remains an historical inconvenience.
    Sorry for that but your article brought that memory flooding back and sadly today, Sunday, just days before the 30th anniversary of the bombing when the national Sunday TV news media summarizes the week’s events and what’s to come … not a mention of it. How sadly Canadian EH?

    Jim G.

    • Now I really feel stupid. Can I amend my remarks? It was JUNE 23rd not July 23rd 1985.I guess the article wound up my emotions a bit. Back in June I think the media did mention it but very briefly and definitely not the coverage it should have been given. I stand by remarks that it remains in most Canadians minds as an inconvenient historical fact.

      Jim G.

  • Hi Jim,

    There is something magic about the night sky! The beauty of it is that the sky is always there, always! My contrails fom today and yours from Years past have all disappeared but the sky remains.
    The tragedy of Air India 182, your Canadian brothers and sisters as well as the British and Indian nationals on board are all on my mind tonight. If it’s any consolation at all, one of the things that strikes me about the sky is that no matter how stupid humanity can be with our wars and cruelty toward each other, we can’t leave scars on the sky. The air battles I referenced in my story and the taking down of Air India Flight 182 you mentioned are examples of what I mean (even your and my contrails…). We can leave a trail of smoke or falling wreckage but the sky carries on. Almost as if it says, “Alright, you’ve had your chance. You made your choices. You live (or die) with the results of those choices Me, I’ll clean up after you and be on my way, untouched by your madness.”

    Your sky is still there for you, Jim!

    Matt

  • Great article Mr. Ferrari. I always enjoy the perspective from an airline cockpit. Keep up the interesting and compelling articles.

    Chris Styers

  • Dear Matt,
    What a wonderful story. All my life I have loved the night sky from any point of view. I am most grateful for being raised in the country, with few lights, and even now I live on a horse farm in SC, and all the lights are on switches. There’s nothing to compare with a clear, cold winter night! (I can do without the cold!). I write not only to offer my praise, but also to tell you that, now, in my 60’s, I am living a decades-old dream of learning to fly, and I shall–weather permitting–be making my first night flight, with my CFI, in the coming week–or next…! I have saved this article since it was published, and I always shall keep it.
    Thank you, Marguerite Herald

    • Thank you Marguerite and congrats on learning to fly! I’ll be watching the night sky for the red-beaconed shooting star “Marguerite” gliding through the heavens….. All those years looking up, wondering and dreaming, the sky has been waiting for you. It’s your turn now!!

  • Hi Matt, and I hope that I do not jinx my first night flight by revealing that my CFI is looking at tomorrow 7/12/16 as the date, and to be at the airport (KCHS) at 2030….I get that little electric thrill that runs through. Never too old.

    Your friend, Marguerite

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