I close the last of the window shades on the right-hand side of the cabin and step into the deserted aft galley. Back here, the vibrations from the engines—still in their climb thrust setting—are rattling the stowed galley carts and Atlas carriers. I run my hand over the numerous bright red latches that hold everything in place. I checked all of these twenty minutes ago, before we pushed back from the gate in the pre-dawn darkness, but a second check to ensure they are locked won’t hurt. On a normal flight there would be several flight attendants back here, now prepping for their first cabin service, but today the plane is empty beyond four pilots and almost 200,000 pounds of Jet A fuel—enough to get us 6,700 miles around the curve of the earth.
This flight is crewed with two First Officers, one Relief Officer and one Captain. I am the junior FO, so the RO and I are working as the relief crew while the senior FO and the Captain handle the beginning and end of the flight. Because of that, my first five+ hours underway will be spent on break as we head southwestward with the sun on our tail. This will work well for me as my 2:30 am alarm didn’t leave me with nearly enough sleep, and I am looking forward to lying down in one of the empty business class seats and getting a few more hours of shut eye. Hence the reason for my stroll through the deserted cabin, shutting window shades to keep the sun out once it does catch up with us.
I start up the left-hand side of the cabin, walking uphill due to the pitch of the plane during climb out, sliding the window shades shut as I move through the empty spaces. The last traces of humid tropical air have long since been cycled out with conditioned air and without body heat from passengers, the temperature is rapidly dropping. I shiver slightly beneath the fleece jacket I’m wearing, think about the warm blanket that is waiting for me at my seat, and keep moving forward, shutting more of the shades as I go. A minute later I arrive at the forward-most bulkhead row that separates economy from the business class cabin and step into it, reaching to shut another shade. I look out the window and my hand pauses.
The horizon line is a splash of orange- and gold-colored air that seems to hover over a vaguely visible ocean covered in popcorn clouds. Above the first hints of the sun the sky is a deep shade of dark blue offset only by a film of pinkish-purple clouds stretching off into the distance. I press my face against the cold surface of the window and watch until my breath fogs the surface. I wipe it clear and continue looking outside. This row sits just forward of the wing, and the massive engine nacelle hangs in the empty air, its metal skin glowing orange in the pre-sunrise light.
I stare at the wingtip, the glow of its red navigation light slowly fading away as daylight, racing around the skin of the globe at a speed we can only dream of traveling at, catches us and drives out the darkness. I blink rapidly several times and then look at my watch. Still over five hours until my shift up front starts, and over twelve hours until we’ll be back on the ground again. I take one more look outside at the arriving day and then slide the window shade shut, plunging my world back into darkness.