While I have written about the adventures or misadventures of flying during my career, I don’t wish to leave the impression that I was in constant danger or that my career could be characterized as hazardous; it wasn’t. There were times when I witnessed unbelievable beauty—sights that I wished my loved ones could have shared. One trip from Detroit back to our home base in Missouri was memorable in this regard.
It was a night flight, and we were in absolutely smooth air, high above the clouds at 35,000 feet in a sky filled with stars. As we crossed over the southern portion of Lake Michigan, we could see thunderstorms below us, whose frequent flashes of lightning in the clouds caused them to glow from inside. It was an awesome, almost unbelievable, sight that could never have been seen from the ground. Only from this high vantage point could a human see nature’s violence disguised as glowing pillows of blinking lights. I marveled at how fortunate I was to behold sights such as this – sights that relatively few people have seen.
I recall another night flight when the skies were perfectly clear and I could see numerous cities at the same time, as if looking at a very large map. Chicago, St. Louis, Des Moines, Kansas City, and all of the smaller cities and towns in between were illuminated as millions of pinpoints of light, some of which were grouped together in places to form great clusters of light that were the large cities. Only from seven miles above the earth could such a breathtaking sight be viewed. It seemed that we were flying over a carpet of lights.
There was a time when we took off from Teterboro, New Jersey, for a short night flight over to LaGuardia in New York. The sky was absolutely clear and the air was smooth. The air traffic controllers kept us at a very low altitude so we would not interfere with other flights above us in this very busy air traffic area. As we approached New York City, our low altitude resulted in our almost flying among the skyscrapers rather than looking down on them as would be expected. We flew right past the World Trade Center and across Manhattan. What a sight!
There were times during a daylight flight when the aircraft was flying at an altitude between the sun and the tops of the clouds just below us. We could see the shadow of our aircraft and even the shadow of the jet contrails displayed on the clouds below.
Sometimes the sun and atmospheric conditions caused a rainbow to appear and be entirely visible on the top of the clouds below us. One unusual aspect of that particular phenomenon was that the rainbow appeared on the clouds as a complete circle. When that circular rainbow appeared on a cloud bank ahead of us, we hoped that we could fly right through the middle of it. We called the circular rainbow a “glory hole,” and it was a rare privilege to be able to fly right through the middle of one of these. What an honor to be among the few to ever witness this type of beauty. I like to think that God reserved such sights for those who fly.
There was another flight that will forever remain in my memory. I had delivered a new Citation Sovereign to Vienna, Austria, and then remained in that country to fly with the crew until they were approved for flight by their own government. One of these flights was destined for Paris, France, where we spent most of the day after landing. We returned late in the day to Vienna with a stop at Graz, Austria, a route that took us alongside the Alps for several hundred miles. The sun was setting at the time, bathing the snow-covered mountains in a brilliant shade of pink! That was an awesome sight and made me wish I had brought my camera.
A week or so later, I remembered my camera when we flew back to Paris. This time, however, we flew high above a solid overcast, and our route of flight took us far north of the previous track, so we didn’t even see the Alps on that flight.
Similar to that experience was one that occurred on a flight from Wichita, Kansas, to Goose Bay, Labrador, where we landed to refuel for the next leg, which would take us to Vienna, Austria. Darkness began to fall about the time we crossed into Canada north of Detroit. As the darkness enveloped us, we saw the northern lights far to the north and off the left side of our aircraft. For the next several hundred miles, we watched the green shades of those lights, appearing to dance as they shifted and changed shape.
On numerous occasions, we experienced St Elmo’s Fire. This is a harmless phenomenon that is usually unnerving when first observed by the uninitiated. Visible only at night, it shows up as little streams of glowing static electricity discharge, usually in the windshield area, as the atmospheric conditions and air friction build up static electricity to a point where it discharges. There is no way of knowing how many novice pilots became the subjects of captains’ practical jokes upon seeing St. Elmo’s fire for the first time.
There were many special moments like that during my flying career, and every one of them touched my soul in a way that I can’t begin to describe. I can only say to those of you who have spent part of your life at the controls of an airplane that it is a pleasure to have shared the sky with you. For those of you who are thinking you would like to become a pilot, I would remind you that the front seat of an airplane is absolutely the best seat in the world.
It was moments like the ones I have described that remind me that being a pilot was so much more than a job. It was an absolute pleasure and a joy. At times like this, it was difficult to believe that I was actually being paid to do this.