Monday, May 16, 2011

Sanctuary

For the last several years I have had the privilege of being one of the flight instructors at Prairie School of Mission Aviation who has instructed students through the night so that they can get their night ratings.  I haven't flown much in recent months, but the memories keep me going.  The following is a melding together of many memories accrued over one fall of night flying.

My eyes flutter open and I become aware of the excessive stillness and quiet.  I wrinkle my brow in confusion and roll over to see if Karen is awake beside me yet.  She's not there and it appears as though her side of the bed has been empty for some time.  My mind struggles to awaken and come to terms with the information that it is taking in.  I roll back over and glance at my alarm clock.  1:57pm.  Everything suddenly comes sharply into focus.  I'm flying the night now.  The haunting stillness of the house is because the kids are at school and Karen has been quietly going about her work so that I can achieve a good "night's" sleep before heading out again this evening.  I love Karen.  There is no music playing in the background and I know that she probably passed by her morning cup of coffee so that the coffee grinder would not awaken me.  Maybe there was enough coffee already ground so that she could make a pot this morning.  I hope so.  No one should have to miss their morning coffee indulgence.

I get myself out of bed and prepare for the coming day.  Do I need a shave?  No.  No one other than the few of us who are flying through the night will be up to see the pathetic and faint shadow of stubble on my cheeks anyway.  I smile.  Maybe we night flyers should have a stubble growing contest.  Or not.  Karen has heard me moving around downstairs and as I come up the stairs I smell eggs cooking and toast in the toaster.  I love that woman.  She does not look forward to this time of the year when I take 4-6 weeks to live my life while they sleep and sleep while they live, but she knows that I love the night.  I finish my breakfast just before my children come home from school, and take the next couple of hours to spend with my family, the only hours of the day that we will be awake at the same time.  I notice the natural light beginning to fade through the windows and I get my things together.  It's time to go to work.

We pilots of the night arrive at the hangar around the same time that the "normal" folk are leaving to go home.  We say our hello's and goodbye's as we cross paths in the foyer downstairs.  They look tired.  It must have been a busy day for them.  I hope the sound of our airplanes will not keep them awake tonight, they need their rest just as much as I do.  The students who are working on their night ratings slowly trickle into the hangar as the blue sky melds into a glorious crimson in the west.  Walk arounds and other pre-flight preparations are completed before it gets too dark.  They can do it all with flashlights alone, but any extra natural light makes it that much easier.  Tonight everyone is ready to go a little bit early and we congregate in the upstairs lounge to gaze out the windows at the gathering darkness.  Is it dark enough yet?  No, not really.  We'll wait another 15 minutes and then begin.  The weather looks great tonight.  No cloud cover at all and a calm has blown in as night settles on the prairies.

As total darkness overcomes the fields, all that can be seen on the apron of the airport is several small red head lamps bobbing up and down as we make our way out to the aircraft.  All of the lights inside are turned off so that those who are not flying right now will have their eyes adjusted to the dark when they start their flights and will not have to wait for their "night vision" later.  Some even do their homework as they wait for their flights by the red light of their headlamps.  They use red light because it will not destroy their night vision.

We strap ourselves into the small cockpit of our airplane and make our way through pre-flight checklists to make sure that everything is well and normal.  Safety is at the front of the mind a lot more during the night.  The joke among night aviators is; "What do you do if you have to do an emergency landing at night?  Turn on your landing light and wait until you can see something.  What if you don't like what you see?  Turn the light off."  We laugh uncomfortably and go through a few checks again in an effort to ensure that something like that will never happen to us.

The moment arrives.  The stillness and peacefulness of the night is broken by the throaty roar of our engine starting up.  Everything looks good.  More checks and lists.  My student clicks the mike button 7 times and we see the runway lights come on, a road in the darkness where moments before there was nothing.  I am reminded of Psalm 119:105.  As a pilot, the runway lights are an invaluable light unto our path.  All checks completed, we take position and roar down the runway.  The nose of the aircraft comes up, obscuring all ground lights from farms and vehicles.  The rumble of the wheels over the runway ceases and the ride becomes utterly smooth.  Out the front windscreen all that we can see is that there is absolutely nothing to see.  My student vocalizes the instrument checks to let me know that things are going well.  The instruments confirm what we cannot see.  We are climbing.  I love this moment.  There is no other feeling like it in life.

Tonight we are headed to Red Deer and then up to Edmonton.  We level off at 6,500 feet and the cruise checks are completed.  This time of night the radios are quiet and nothing distracts us from the beauty of what lays before us.  To the west we can see the ribbon of light known as the QEII highway running from Calgary to Edmonton.  We see the lights of Calgary, Airdrie, Didsbury, Olds and Red Deer in the same glance.  I know that if we climb another 2,000 feet we could also see Edmonton.  My student is doing well and is in control of everything and right on course.  There are virtually no upper winds tonight and the navigation log is working out perfectly, which will make the flight easier for him.  As we approach Red Deer we begin talking to the radio operator there and learn that there is no other traffic for us to be aware of.  My student flies a nice approach and we touch 'n go and head up to Edmonton.  Edmonton is surrounded by class "C" airspace and my student is a little bit intimidated by this.  As we approach the boarders of the airspace we go over proper radio protocol and talk through what should happen next.  The radio calls he makes aren't perfect but he handles it very well.  At night you can see many more aircraft than during the day because of the lights on the different planes.  We hear controllers giving instructions and watch as plane after plane lines up in perfect order for landing.  As we respond to our instructions we fit in nicely to the flow of traffic.  I wonder, "What would life be like if we all responded to God in the same way?"  Hmm.  Food for thought.  I share my thought with my student and we talk briefly about how night flying remind us of the greatness of God in many different ways.

We are approaching the city center airport, and have been given vectors to approach from the south.  We come in low over the downtown core, flying a perfect approach to the runway.  We feel as though we are merely feet above the skyscrapers and towers of downtown Edmonton, and marvel again at the urban beauty around us.  Everything goes well, and we are soon off towards Three Hills.  We clear Edmonton's airspace and by this time I have my student doing some instrument work.  He is wearing the "foggles", which simulate instrument conditions and keep him from being able to see out the windows.  I look outside again and marvel at the beauty of creation as seen at night from 7,500 feet.  The words of Psalm 8 come to mind and I agree with the psalmist.  The name of God is indeed majestic.  From my vantage point the stars are brighter and bigger than they often look from the ground.  I see a shooting star flash across the horizon and marvel again at the vastness of space and the creativity of our God.  Our cockpit is a sanctuary.

I glance over at my student's eyes to see what he is looking at.  Good for him.  His eyes are moving over the instrument panel in proper sequence and he is well prepared for what is next to come on this flight.  I contemplate giving him a simulated emergency but decide to wait until a little bit later.  When it comes he handles it safely, but we'll have to talk about it when we are on the ground.  It could have been better.  We approach Three Hills and I have him remove the foggles for the remainder of the flight.  Our landing at Three Hills is done with a simulated landing light failure.  He handles it very well and we settle softly onto the runway.  We taxi to the fuel pumps and shut down the engine.  We thank God for another successful flight and I prepare for my next one.

The night goes well.  As we push the airplanes into the hangar at the end of the night we notice the eastern sky beginning to lighten up and decide to stay and watch the sunrise.  Beautiful.  I make my way home and crawl into bed beside my wife.  She'll be waking up in about 20 minutes and I tell myself to make sure I am asleep by then or else it will be much more difficult to fall asleep once she is up.  I fade off to sleep thanking God for my wife and family.

Psalm 8    
For the director of music. According to gittith.  A psalm of David.
O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
above the heavens.
From the lips of children and infants
you have ordained praise
because of your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air,
and the fish of the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.
O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

2 comments:

  1. You always did get the good students. That student sounds like a machine! Very well done Dallas. I always enjoyed seeing the northern lights while flying at night. Talk about the "work of your fingers".

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  2. Always enjoy reading what your post Dallas. I remember my first night solo xc there were fantastic northern lights dancing in the sky. One of my favorite training memories.

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