Sunday, April 21, 2013

Night Flight

It is to be a normal flight tonight—so the dispatcher tells us—from Lima up to Houston, all six and a half hours of it, all unaugmented (just two of us up front), and all dark. The route takes us up the coast to Guayaquil, where we go feet-wet over the Pacific, then coast-in near San Jose, Costa Rica. From there it's up across Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula, and then more blue water over the Gulf. Dispatch says the only problem area should be the Pacific coastal waters—just a few of the regular thunderstorms that hang out there, he says.

Yeah, they hang out there all right, like restless malcontents at a pool hall. Some nights they don't even notice you're in the neighborhood. Other nights...well, this is to be one of those “other” nights. 

But it starts off innocently enough. (That's been a pattern in my flying career—“innocent” starts.) The first officer, Perry, notices meteors. A shower seems to be underway to our front right. We dim the cockpit lights and watch for them as the Big Dipper rears up above the northern horizon dragging hundreds of points of light with it. It makes me think of St. Exupery's Fabian leaning out his window and gazing up at the night sky before leaving for his nightly mail route in a biplane across Argentina. St. Exupery writes that Fabian “looked at the moon and reckoned up his riches.” His wife joins him at the window, knowing he was already on his way. She points to the sky and says, “See, your road is paved with stars.”

And for us indeed it is. A feeble moon sinking into the west, to our left, reddens the sky in that direction and soon we pass the first thunderhead—a sentinel posted out to warn the others that we are coming. The cell passes between us and the setting moon. The storm eclipses moon and becomes ablaze around its edges—a colossal anvil silhouetted with shimmering ochre moonbeams. Few human eyes ever feast on such a divine orchestration of cosmic and earthly beauty.

Satisfied that my cup runs over tonight with heavenly vistas, I tend to the normal cockpit duties of long-cruise Mach Rangers: fuel burn analysis, monitoring the auto-flight devices and keeping track of where our best divert airfields are (should the fit suddenly hit the shan). That done for now, I yawn and fire-up my Kindle for a spot of reading.

I'm half way through Huxley's Brave New World, and am trying to be brave enough to finish it. It's a chore. I tire with it quickly, yawn some more and rub my eyes. Brave New World is putting me to sleep. I switch to Horowitz's Inside of a Dog. Now this is much more interesting, as a dog is a big part of my life. Horowitz says dogs don't lick your face when you come home because they love you, rather because their olfactory senses want to see where you've been and what you've eaten. Interesting, but I know Horowitz is full of the stuff that hits the fan. My dog licks me because she adores me.

Neither can Horowitz hold my attention long. My eyelids grow heavier. But this languor is about to change.

Perry, who is flying the jet tonight, is fiddling with the radar. He's painting bright red splotches up ahead, just where Mr. Dispatcher said they would be. We douse the floods and lean forward hoping for Mark-1 Eyeball contact. The horizon ahead and to our right is ablaze with strobes and flashes. As we move northward the perpetrators of the flashes raise their heads above the horizon, a long unbroken line of them. They have tired of waiting for us and have taken to slinging fiery arrows at each other.

We must DV8 (that's ACARS-speak for “deviate”) far left of course. CenAmer control approves and we swing farther out over the Pacific, only to see even more thunderheads blocking our starry path. What would Fabian do?

“I’ve made my plans,” he told his young wife. “I know exactly where to turn.” Perry and I are lacking of Fabian’s cocky assurance. We must place our faith in Mr. Bendix’s  X-band wizardry.

Before long we are over a hundred miles off course and getting more off. The FMC—the 767’s brain— gets worried, tells us we have “insufficient fuel.”  We know once we turn back toward course the landing fuel projection will return to near normal, but the FMC can't read our minds. It doesn't know when or if we will ever turn back. The jet thinks we are going to miss the North American continent and burn our last gallon somewhere west of California with the wheels still in the wells.

At last we find the storm system's west flank and turn back east. But now we are in the soup—“embedded” with the sparring giants. The depressing murk enshrouding us flashes with sparks flying from their stupendous clashing swords. We begin to weave between the battling giants hoping they don't notice us. Strangely, not a ripple in the air disturbs us.

Headed back north now, the FMC gets happy again as it re-calculates our landing fuel projection. Then we break out of the gloom and feast our eyes on the Big Dipper, dead ahead. I yawn, call back for some strong coffee and reach for my laptop. I ponder a new blog post and a name for it: Night Flight. I hope St. Ex won't mind.

Wondering what happened to Fabian? "Only too well he knew them for a trap. A man sees a few stars...and climbs toward them, and then—never can he get down again but stays up there eternally, chewing the stars….But such was his lust for light that he began to climb."

 Perry relaxes. The sun is up. 
Unlike Fabian we have gotten through.