Taking Wing: Silent Night

Reflections on life aloft after sunset.

Taking Wing Sunset

Taking Wing Sunset

The maintenance delay in Baltimore, the frenetic jostle of Atlanta's crowded ramps, the low drizzly ceiling in Minneapolis, the myriad little challenges and rewards of the day — all these things have faded with last light, and only the dusky shadows of the day remain. The flickering gas flares of the Bakken Oilfield fade astern as we forge into Montana; the sole remaining lights are the stars twinkling to life above. The man to my left, gray-haired and weathered from a life spent in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, has fallen uncharacteristically quiet. He is no stranger to the night; in his youth he spent many anxious midnights alone over the ocean, counting the hours till he guided his craft home on a tiny, pitching carrier deck. He fidgets with a rheostat, one of 40 such knobs and switches in this well-worn cockpit, further dimming his flight instruments' incandescent lights. I lean back, look up through the eyebrow window and ponder the heavens. "Beautiful night," murmurs the captain, and I silently nod. This is my favorite time of day.

Most of my flying is in the temperate latitudes, and thus my logbook's nighttime column advances and retreats with the ebb and flow of the seasons. At the height of summer a night flight is a rare treat, but in winter darkness it's an ever-present fact of flying life to an even greater extent than snowstorms, deicing or frigid preflights. To be a professional pilot is to be comfortable aloft after sunset, and far better if one learns to enjoy the witching hour. This is when beauty and silence reign, when the heart grows fond for hearth and home, when egos fade and old friends are made. From this altitude, all the disheartening headlines proclaiming a world gone mad — ISIS and Ebola, wars and hopelessly ­dysfunctional governments — seem impossibly distant, and peace and goodwill toward man rule the darkened face of a slumbering planet.

This serendipity comes at a price, which is the long process of acclimatization to an unfamiliar regime. Humans are poorly adapted to performing complex tasks after dark, so night flight is a daunting prospect for many new pilots. I recall that just before my first night solo, I dreamed of being trapped in a darkened Cessna cockpit, inexplicably unable to climb after takeoff as a black line of trees materialized out of the murk, branches violently slapping the wings as I woke in cold sweat. This nightmare reoccurred for years and did little to foster my enjoyment of night flight.

Later, as I worked toward my commercial license, I duly completed the required nighttime hours and experienced several incidents that reinforced my nocturnal unease. In the pattern at Grand Forks late one night, I was startled by a tremendous bang that, after a hasty landing, proved to be the untimely demise of a large Canada goose whose impact shattered the Piper's fiberglass nose bowl. A few months later, in a twin-engine Seminole above the trackless Minnesota northwoods, I barely resisted correcting what I was sure was a left-hand turn though all my instruments insisted I was actually in a 30-degree bank to the right. For the first time I understood the powerful forces that had been John F. Kennedy Jr.'s undoing a few years prior.

Despite these incidents, I began to enjoy night flying while flight instructing in Los Angeles, which is a far more beautiful place on a clear night than during the smog-choked day. The experience proved useful when I began flying Part 135 cargo. On my first routes, I flew until about 2 a.m., and sometimes as late as sunrise. I spent many lonely, contemplative hours in the Navajo's womblike cockpit, suspended above the inky void of the Mojave Desert. I had a lot of time to think, and spent a lot of time fighting off fatigue brought on by the lulling noise and rhythmic motion. I'd play mental math or word games, or pose a query in a bid to get the silent LA Center controller to talk to me. I tried to keep my imagination from running wild, as when dark mountains emerged from the murk at a much greater altitude than they had any right to be. On one moonless night I was trapped in a bad icing layer by high MEAs and a lack of onboard oxygen. The props threw a deafening barrage of ice against the fuselage and made an anxious hour seem interminably longer. The most terrifying incident, by far, was being startled awake at 2 a.m. on short final to Runway 26 at Burbank, fully configured to land. In an airplane with no autopilot, I had no memory of the prior half-hour.

After such experiences, night flying at the airlines is a comparative breeze. Unless you fly red-eyes or transoceanic flights — I've not yet had the pleasure — the hours are more civilized, seldom going past midnight or departing before 5 a.m. The equipment is better suited for night flying, with terrain and radar displays and fully customizable cockpit lighting. The airports we serve are uniformly well lit and usually have precision approaches to long, wide runways (in the United States, anyway). Given the lack of traffic at late hours, the usual frequency and airport congestion challenges of the daytime cease to be a factor at even the largest hubs.

At the airlines, of course, two of us share the cockpit. With fewer interruptions, there is more time for conversation, which helps keep us awake and alert. You really get to know the guys and gals you fly with on night flights. People are more open about their personal lives and less likely to express divisive or negative opinions in the soft glow of a shared cocoon. Tiresome political arguments, union gripes and religious proselytizing are more rare than during the day. Instead you hear a lot of interesting stories from your counterparts' pasts, the triumphs and regrets of their lives, their hopes and fears for the future. Some, like tonight's captain, prefer contemplative silence, and that's OK too. As a new copilot, I tend to be a chameleon that adapts to my captains' preferences. At night, this includes not only the type and amount of conversation, but also the flight deck ambience. Some turn the cockpit lighting down low, the better to stargaze or see traffic. Others cruise around with all interior lights blazing to aid wakefulness.

I haven't flown small planes at night in a few years because my current flying-club Piper Cub is not equipped for night flight, having neither lights nor even an electrical system. The Cessna 170 I flew previously had both, but I was still gaining experience as a tailwheel pilot. When I finally worked up the gumption to do three stop-and-goes on a moonless December's eve, it had been eight years since I had last flown a light plane at night. The first pattern and landing brought back all the anxiety and discomfort of my first night solo. The second lap was less stressful, and by my third touchdown I was actually feeling comfortable. My wife, Dawn, clambered into the right seat and we took off again, turning toward downtown Minneapolis. I flew a lap around the brightly lit skyline and then headed west to the snow-blanketed suburbs, where we circled sleepy neighborhoods draped extravagantly with multicolored Christmas lights. Swooping through the freezing air, snug in the cozy cabin, my wife grasped my arm and exclaimed every time she saw a particularly audacious display. It was a special flight, one I remember fondly.

Back over Montana, the captain clears his throat softly. "Well, let's go ahead and brief the approach to Boise," he says. Sure enough, Billings is passing to our right and I can make out the lights of Bozeman peeking over the Bridger Range to the northwest. It is almost time to leave our lofty perch and rejoin the great mass of earthbound humanity. The captain turns on the overhead lights, and the stars outside disappear as the recesses of the cockpit come into sharp focus. I smile to myself as I retrieve the charts from the Jeppesen binder. There are too few people in the world who have experienced the wonder and beauty I've seen on nights like this. Someday, maybe someday soon, my wife and I will buy an airplane of our own. When we do, it will be equipped for night flight. The rare ability to gaze down on a silent, slumbering and peaceful world is too precious a gift to not be shared with the people you love.

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