DALLAS – I gazed listlessly out the side of my airplane, impatiently rubbernecking like an interstate road tripper caught in a long summer traffic jam.
It was the last leg of another twelve-hour workday and I was ready to go home. Bumping slowly along the uneven pavement, I kept a solid grip on the metal D-ring handle of my crew hatch, using care to ensure that the compounding gusts of the jet blast from the preceding airliners didn’t rip the door from my grasp.
The sun had set and the western horizon was a pale sliver of hazy yellow rapidly being overrun by the deep tranquil blue of the impinging night sky. Through my open hatch came all the familiar smells of the airport, delicately intermixed with those of the sea. As we inched forward in line, I detected the faint but unmistakable scent of cheeseburgers cutting through the bouquet of saltwater and Jet A. Reaching for the power levers, my stomach growled.
The tail of my twin Cessna bounced and wagged gently as we taxied along, the rudder and stabilizer being worked not only by my own propellor wash but also the warm, swirling summer winds. As the Boeing 737 in front of me added power, the rhythmic thrum of my engines changed distinctly in pitch as the props absorbed the wash of its jets, the back half of my airplane shaking like a dog fresh out of her bath.
“Maybe don’t get quite so close next time,” I thought to myself. crossing the hold bars onto the runway, I flipped on my blinking strobe lights and, seconds later, the bright landing lights mounted far out on the wings. The long white stripes of the runway disappeared under my airplane’s protruding nose as we gained speed, and soon we were climbing away from the evening’s traffic, past the control tower, over the seaport, and out beyond the sparkling lights of the city.
Leveling out over Cape Ann, I methodically set the six levers on my throttle quadrant to cruise power, pausing an extra beat on the propellor’s pitch controls, ensuring that each of the two engines was balanced and operating at exactly matching speeds.
Their harmonious hum achieved, I settled back in the seat and stretched my feet between the rudder pedals, the last of the cabin reading lights clicking off behind me as we skidded beyond the shore and off into the darkness of the Atlantic Ocean. Ahead, the gleam of coastal towns slipped slowly away, and the peacefully bobbing lights marking creaking ships and rocky shoals were all that was left to differentiate sea from sky.
Scanning beyond my nose, some 40 miles from shore and halfway up the Maine seacoast, a faint glimmer of red caught my attention. At first, I thought I was seeing things; a long day in turbulence and a steady diet of airport terminal food could do that. But when the passenger in my co-pilot’s seat looked up too, I realized it wasn’t just an illusion. Spreading steadily across the horizon, an increasingly distinct wave of red energy was emerging before our eyes.
There, far out to sea, a dancing crimson ribbon glinted and flickered, cutting a sharp contrast with the otherwise gloomy, vacant expanse of the starless night’s sky. My inquisitive right-seat companion turned to look at me and, finding no answers in my expression, returned his gaze to the mesmerizing spectacle outside.
Twinkling wave tops became evident on the surface as brightly-colored rays joined the heavenly panoply. The ghostly silhouette of a ship formed above the swells, and the hazy glow grew to overwhelm the cold Atlantic sky with iridescent streaks of bright vermillion and shimmering silver. Before long, I became aware of another presence in the cockpit.
The passenger seated behind me had leaned forward, and now all three of our heads sat aligned, six eyes staring out in unison, enthralled by the wonders of nature unfolding beyond our cockpit windows. For many minutes we sat utterly transfixed, silently admiring the colorful pageantry together. Gazing beyond my dimly lit cockpit, I became distinctly aware that we were sharing a moment in time. I felt as one with my companions, with my airplane, and with the cosmos.
A call from air traffic control snapped me back to reality, and soon the full face of the lunar surface had formed above the waves and was climbing high into the eastern sky. I don’t know if all of my passengers were able to experience that stunning moonrise over the Atlantic that evening, but as I returned to the business of bringing my meager craft back earth, I felt thrilled to have been able to share the uniquely special beauty of my job with those who did. The quiet nods we exchanged as the last of my passengers deplaned were all that needed to be said.
Sharing the beauty of flight with others is the single best part of an airline pilot’s job. Sometimes, we are fortunate to share many moments together. For me, I was lucky to have shared hundreds of hours in the cockpit with a dear friend. Ben and I flew through the worst New England’s winters could throw at us and then some. We dodged summer thunderstorms, marveled at Maine’s beautiful sunrises, and kept each other company through long and sometimes tedious duty days.
I learned so much from my time flying with Ben and, later, when we were Captains together, I was that much better for it. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard on an airplane. Ben later went on to his dream job flying Airbuses at JetBlue (B6) and, though our careers took us in different directions for a time, I looked forward to the day when I could share the cockpit with him again.
Last week, at just thirty-one years old, my friend Ben lost his battle with cancer. Understanding the fleeting and temporary nature of life is what makes moments like the one I’ve shared in this story with you so absolutely precious. I cherish each and every one of them, and I’m so glad I was able to share so many with such a talented pilot. Dirigo, brother. We miss you so much already.
Featured image: Patrick. W. Smith