Although pretty much everyone who has left their teenage years behind is aware of the finite nature of their life, somehow I feel that pilots have to deal with that on a more daily basis than most other professions (or human activities, so we don’t exclude our private pilot colleagues). Of course, the more safe and reliable the flying deal becomes, the less likely to get killed in a crash we are, and the pioneer adventurous days of early 20th century and even the somewhat traumatic transition to the jet age are long gone.
If there is still good room for improvement for general aviation worldwide, the airlines almost took the outstanding safety levels we have today for granted, as the recent MAX imbroglio showed. We went from the safest year ever to a relatively deadly one, and the 737 Next Generation, the safest narrow body airliner of all time, wasn’t able to pass on its statistics to the MAX just by being its predecessor. How much of the problem is the project design, how much is the pilot training, is yet open to debate: the man/machine system is much more complex than any of the two as seen separately.
Any ordinary passenger, if exposed to a crew briefing, would be surprised at how many things can go wrong on a takeoff or landing, and if the life-threatening events are getting improbable—to levels never before experienced in our activity—is mostly because we address them in training, briefings, and on mitigating actions that underscore our operation, and even when they do occur, we are prepared enough to turn them into not much more than an inconvenience followed by extensive paperwork.
But let’s not open the door to complacency: death is still vigilant, waiting in the corner, the same way life seems to be in the other side every time it spots a young couple. And the utmost responsibility to keep a flight safe rests on its crew’s shoulders—until, of course, that yet distant day when drones will be carrying people, but even then, when airplanes become as relevant to the economy as sailboats are after thousands of years in the vanguard of human and goods transport, aviators will be around still, the same way sailors are.
That being said, it takes us to the core subject of this article. People like to collect stuff. From postal stamps to magnets, from paintings to whiskey, and for more wealthy ones, cars and warbirds. As a pilot, having lived in more than a couple of countries, and way more than a dozen houses, carrying any kind of physical collection became hard enough to be considered, and even my beloved airplane models were reduced to a reasonable minimum.
So, I started collecting something lighter, more ephemeral, and extremely limited. Not for the supply itself, since it has been available for billions of years and on our terrestrial version is likely to be for some other billions. But the number of sunsets we, as humans, can see in a lifetime is arguably restricted. Any ordinary office or mall worker is usually at a disadvantage: imagine those that live in London! But we, pilots, are in a very good position: on our flights from the Middle East to Europe, flying at Mach .85 comes in handy on the matter, and by traveling west at such speed and latitude, we virtually counterbalance most of the Earth’s rotation velocity. The result is a sunset that can last for hours.
A few months ago, on my way to the UK, having the orange sky reflecting on Lake Van, over the Turkish-Iranian border, really inspired me to write these words. It was far from being the first, and if the huge windows of the Dreamliner make the sunlight annoying—especially in the morning after a long night flight—they allow for a first row view of this daily display.
Nevertheless, there’s one thing that is better than watching a sunset from Flight Level 430: pattern work. If taking off or landing at the golden hour is not good enough, then gathering a sequence of touch and goes at that magical time of the day when our shadows are stretched is unbeatable. If you can, please, leave the computer/smartphone now, pick your airplane and go outside for a couple of those for me.
And what about sunrises? Of course I have collected a lot of them too, the last one over the Mallaca Strait, but I’ve got to be honest: there are only two ways of watching sunrises: either waking up too early or not sleeping at all, and I am not a big fan of either one. That’s what ends up making my opinion about the beauty of the phenomenon sort of biased. And since the beauty of it is linked to the beauty and clearness of the sky itself, places such as the Middle Eastern deserts or the African plateaus are truly talented ones. Although, to be fair, more unusual are those of Scandinavia with the Northern Lights—when they have a sunset at all. In the summer they are late enough for you not to wait for them to go to bed, and in the winter—depending on how far north you are—you don’t have a sunrise at all, making the pre-conditions for a sunset obviously impossible.
But of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of sunsets I’ve been collecting successfully over the years both on ground and in the air, I have an easy winner. During my late stages of the timeshare while adding up hours for my commercial, flying back from SSI (McKinnon, Georgia) to Florida, we were flying at 5500 ft. somewhere around Jacksonville, and a clear inversion layer was right below. That day, we had the most incredible kind of sunset: a double one. The sun first disappeared without touching the horizon, only to then set again behind the plains of the panhandle. A unique view I was fortunate enough to watch from a Cessna 172 and register, so to be able to share with you readers of the honorable Air Facts Journal.
Since my number of sunsets is already defined—and not knowing it in advance is a kind of universal privilege—I can’t help but remain on my pursuit: hopefully the best are yet to come, and I highly encourage you to do the same.