The whisky compass—not actually filled with whisky but according to rumor named for the substance that it once used as lubricant—swings back and forth several degrees as the plane rolls in the chop being generated by the strong jet stream core we are passing through. The sky is clear, but this turbulence has been stalking us for the last 100 miles as we’ve crawled across the azure blue expanses. For several seconds, the turbulence fades and the compass settles down and shows a few points to the left of southwest. Moments later the turbulence starts up and again the compass spins wildly, but the heading indicators on our primary flight displays, pulling data from ring laser gyroscopes—a technology the ancient civilizations who first navigated using the iron needle could only dream of—hold steady, and we continue onward.
We are between tracks—cross tracking in pilot/dispatcher speak—turning off one to pick up another farther to the south and clear of jet streams in hopes of a quicker and less bumpy ride west. This means we are in a sort of no man’s land between the published routes across the Pacific—and very, very much alone in the sky. Even with my map display set to its maximum range, where I can see a 320-mile virtual arc of the sky in front of us, there is no other traffic in sight. I scroll the range back down to 80 miles, and the virtual world now roughly matches what my eye can see from 38,000 feet.
It’s late morning, and we are far enough north of the equator to have the sun shining on the captain’s side of the plane but leaving my half of the cockpit in shadow. He has his sunshades pulled down on the side windows and is having mixed success in keeping out the bright glare. Despite that, every time one of the flight attendants comes up front, stepping out of the darkened cave of the forward galley, they spend several seconds blinking in the harsh light of day.
A few scattered clouds float across the surface of the ocean below us, but beyond that we are in a blue bubble of water and sky that merges in a fuzzy exchange of both at the horizon line. Despite my frequent exposure to it, the vastness of space rarely makes itself so apparent. At the top of my display screen, a lat/long waypoint—out here off the tracks there are no named fixes—slides into view, one pixel at a time, and I have to remind myself not to look out the front window to visually search for a point in space that only exists as ones and zeros in the flight computer.
We are approaching 140 degrees West and somewhere hundreds and hundreds of miles off our right wingtip, along this imaginary line of longitude, is the town of Eagle, Alaska. Off our left wingtip is nothing but salt water until the ice of Antarctica rises from the depths near the southern terminus of the line. As I ponder the literal representation of Puck’s earthly girdle, we pass over it and this triggers a brief flurry of activity. I use the ACARS satellite feed to send a position report to the Company and then start a timer for ten minutes. Because we are off a published track there is an arcane requirement to plot our position ten minutes after each fix to ensure that we are in fact going the way we are supposed to be going.
The ten minutes come and go, and just like that we are ten minutes closer to home. I reset the timer to zero, and then on my iPad I recenter the map display on our current position. The map moves so that the small blue dot representing our GPS position is at the very center. I then click the “mark position” button, and a small icon appears marking our current location with the time noted above it. I zoom in and verify that the icon is on our purple course line, which it is. In the old days—well, two years ago—we had to do paper plotting, which involved using large folding paper maps and drawing our route onto them for each flight. Then, 10 minutes after passing a fix, we’d have to get our GPS position from the airplane computer and transfer it to the map, estimating minutes and seconds of degrees to find the current position.
I still carry a few paper maps in my bag, although they are out of date now and probably grossly inaccurate, as fixes and tracks get renamed over time. But thar be monsters in these waters, and it never hurts to have a means of backup navigation… or something to draw portraits of said monsters on when you are bored.