The airplane’s nose is tracking just a few points off due east through the cold, clear air. Several hours earlier while I was on break and trying my best to get some sleep in the back, for just over 300 miles, we rode the core of a jet stream. While I tossed and turned in a less than comfortable lay-flat seat, the captain flying the plane pushed the power up slightly to—assisted by 200 knots of wind whistling around the curves of the earth—break his personal ground speed record and fly at just over 800 miles per hour over the unseen waters of the northern Pacific some 39,000 feet below.
Now, 1000 miles down range and out of the core of the jet, we are moving eastward at a more sedate 600 miles per hour. I stare out the front windshield where overhead there is nothing but inky darkness, broken only by the periodic pinpricks of starlight. The crescent moon, clinging to our tail since we took off, has finally set, and even with my face pressed to the cold glass of the cockpit windows, the starlight is insufficient to illuminate the cloud layer I know that we are flying over. I blink my eyes and watch, as ahead, the darkness at the very edge of my vision splits into two and a horizon line materializes from the obscurity of the night.
Low on the now blue horizon, just to the right of our course, the star Arcturus is rising into the pre-dawn sky. I watch while the miles to go number on the FMS—still four digits long after six hours of flying—spins slowly downward, and our eastward motion coupled with the Earth’s rotation slides the painting of the night sky, now fading from black to pale blue at its ragged bottom edge, over our heads and back towards where we’ve already been. Holding the center point of the constellation Boötes from 37 light years away and the brightest star I can see by several orders of magnitude, Arcturus seems to pulse slightly as it climbs, its light waves hitting slight disturbances at the edges of our atmosphere mere trillionths of a second before reaching my eyes.
We continue eastward while the blue strip of light that has formed the horizon expands upwards and widens the gap between the darkness of the sky and the blackness of the unseen sea below, like a stage curtain being raised. Arcturus continues its trek westward, slowly fading as the daylight races to overtake it, until it is nothing more than a dim speck in the soft blue air. Golden light is starting to fill in along the horizon line causing the vague forms of orange-tinted clouds below us to begin to emerge from the gloom. I adjust the brightness on my display screens and turn off the overhead panel lights that have been doing their best to keep us awake the past few hours. In several minutes, the leading edge of the sun will break over the horizon and we will be scrambling to position sunshades and other material to block the glare. But for now, no longer in the night, but not yet in the day, I take a deep breath in, count to five, and then slowly exhale into the rapidly brightening light.