The wild coastline of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia are well behind us with their isolated clumps of lights a recent memory. Radio reception by VHF has faded, we are bound for Ireland with Greenland and Iceland but distant frozen refuge to the North. We are a huddle, a brotherhood* with common cause moving a mile closer to Europe every eight seconds. That cause links us tenuously with generations of aviators reaching back to the first human to lift off and cross this ‘pond’ alone.
One man, bereft of sleep traveling at a mile every forty seconds or so, with the heaving swell a good deal closer than the one I cannot see eight miles beneath me now. I have an idea, the merest idea how he must have felt having once been airborne for eighteen hours myself – Lindbergh was airborne for thirty three having not slept the previous evening. I shudder at the thought and reach for my coffee; I peer through the windscreen into the ink black void outside.
[The picture aside was taken by colleagues as he set out, they accompanied him for a short way.]
The few has become the many, across thirty seven nautical miles of ink black, thin cold air I see the another 777 one thousand feet below us at thirty six thousand feet. The only visible evidence of the existence of nearly three hundred people and many tons of metal, fuel and food is the aircraft’s lights strobing away rhythmically in the darkness. I glance down at the navigation display, it reveals a symbol, a small white diamond represents him, a digit sequence next to it indicates his height relative to us.
He is just one amongst six others that I can see out there in the night, strung out, winking their way along ‘Track Whiskey’ staggered at different flight levels. Quaint really – like ducks huddled together, winging their way towards home, but then ducks don’t fly at night – do they.
I stretch in my seat against my lap-straps twisting my spine, creaking tendons and groaning muscles, “Sensible ducks!” I mutter to myself.
My colleague looks up from his papers, the instrument displays reflecting in his glasses as he sips his coffee, “Ducks?”
I groan as I stretch, “Disregard – I’m just scribbling.” “Uhuh” he grunts absently returning to his papers. He is working out where he wants to be sent next by the airline next month and is constructing his bid to insert into the system on our return.
Barring the departure and climb, the greater part of the evenings work is well behind us with the setting up, request, receipt and checking of our Air Traffic Control clearance to cross the ocean following a specific route, at a specific speed and a specific flight level. This process has involved controllers in darkened rooms in Gander. As the evenings masters of ceremonies, they have collated the players and orchestrated the distribution of night’s performers across the track system. A system of mostly parallel, lettered tracks which are positioned to a certain extent by mother nature herself when she creates the jet-streams.
The jet-streams (with their associated turbulence) are embraced when we fly Eastbound and shunned when we fly West. Our friends on the ground arrange and publish the detail of their part of the business for us; we collect the fruits of their labors in paper form prior to climbing aboard the jet. Singing from the same hymn sheet – follow the precise, defined path is… important.
We used to mark our transit across the ocean with Air Traffic control by HF radio, some still do calling in at each westerly ten degree division. Technology has lifted that tedious chore from us, it is now accomplished automatically on the Boeing 777 by our flight management and satellite communications systems. Now it is only necessary to pass brief details at the boundary of major airspace blocks, a kind of courtesy call really, that and dropping a calling card as we test our ‘call bell’ – the SELCALL system.
Which brings us back to the night – the long night when all sensible people and most ducks are tucked up in bed as many are but a few feet behind us – people that is. Beyond them are those who slumber in comfortable armchairs, beyond them… well, a little less comfort and a lesser nights rest. Silence generally prevails on the flight deck at night, the darkened environment seems to provide us with time for reflection and most of us use it. It is the introverts time and we all have a side that enjoys the peace of the night.
After four hours worth of Atlantic crossing comes the dawn. It starts as most high altitude dawns do, with a slight raising of the light levels toward the east and a flash as our planet’s sixty zillion watt space-lantern pokes her brow above the horizon.
This is not a good time for the sleepless or those with grit in their eyes to be facing East. ‘Phoebe’ as my gardening grandmother used to call her, gets blotted out with screens, charts clipboards, anything useful to hand until she has risen to around thirty degrees above the horizon and out of direct view above the windscreens. At this point we discard the eye protection, by which time we are have left the bulk of the ocean behind us and Irish civilization creeps toward us.
Breakfast arrives courtesy of our comrades in the cabin, a face full of cornflakes and a little scrambled egg raises the spirits for the return to earth. No-one calls Heathrow civilization in my neck of the woods.
Brotherhood* = sisters too!