I blink rapidly as I step into the light-filled cockpit, after the darkness of the business class cabin. The Relief Officer, who has spent the last four hours, along with the Relief Captain, navigating us westward while the captain and I were on our rest break, slides past me and steps out of the cockpit. Still squinting slightly, I sit down in the empty right seat. While I click my seatbelt into place and adjust the seat position, the Relief Captain, who is still flying the plane, briefs me on where we are and what’s been happening, and hands control of the plane over to me. He then unclicks his seatbelt, gives up his seat to the captain, and moves to the jump seat, where he will remain for the rest of the flight.
The captain, now settled in to the left seat, reaches up and turns off the overhead lights. The two translucent panels mounted above our heads fade towards darkness, seeming to hold their glow for several seconds—although perhaps it is just an optical remembrance of the light—before disappearing into the gloom, invisible beyond the integral lighting mapping out the multitude of systems, buttons, and switches on the overhead panel. My eyes relax, and the cockpit windows, freed of their interior reflections, fade to clear and the nighttime sky and the earth below materialize into view.
I look forward out the cockpit windshield where, some 100 miles distant, the coastline of the south-eastern corner of Korea is ablaze with ground lights. Directly below us is a blank slate of darkness broken only by a scattering of solitary lights, marking the positions of various ships working their way through the Korea Strait heading south towards the South China Sea or north into the Sea of Japan. From up here, their motion is imperceptible, and their destinations are all unknown. Our motion too, seems almost imperceptible. The headwind, near zero several hours ago, has grown to almost 200 miles per hour and although the ride is smooth, we are pushing against a river of quickly moving air molecules.
I force my focus back inside and run my eyes over the various display screens. When I left the cockpit the sun was still high in the sky and below us was nothing more than empty ocean covered with scattered puffy clouds. For almost 2000 miles of airspace we hadn’t seen another airplane or heard another radio transmission. Now, the traffic display shows several white diamonds representing nearby airplanes, and the radio speakers frequently sputter to life with the sounds of Tokyo Control issuing instructions. We are just over 300 miles from Incheon, our destination for the evening, and I try to visualize how the next hour will go.
This is my first international trip in the plane, and up until my recent return from my rest break, the only thing new I’d experienced was the length of the flight plan that I’d loaded into the computer. Now, for the first time I’m seeing the coastline of the Korean peninsula out the window and listening to a cascade of instructions, some of which I can barely understand, being given to various aircraft around us. I can’t decide if I am supposed to be feeling excited or overwhelmed. I take a deep breath, which ends with a smile, and settle on excited.
Feeling slightly caught up, I take another glance out the front window at the slowly approaching ribbon of light. I follow the coastline off into the distance, as it undulates back and forth against the darkness of the ocean until it fades into nothingness at the edge of my tired eye’s capabilities. Out my side window however, the ocean is far from dark. Flares of sodium vapor orange lights dot the black waters marking the location of squid boats, in the process of luring their prey to the surface. These hundreds of spots, arrayed almost grid like, stretch toward the horizon where they merge into a dull glow of light.
Tokyo Control issues us a clearance. The Captain ponders the clearance for a few moments, trying to match up the heavily accented English that we just heard with a fix name on our flight plan. We find a likely choice, agree on it, and he then reads back the clearance while I instruct the autopilot to head that way. The plane banks a few degrees to the left and then settles on its new heading. As the wings roll level, the squid boats drop out of view, and the approaching thread of lights forming the coast inch ever closer.