We raise the California coast, visible as nothing more than a slim sliver of orange light cutting across a dark horizon, about 90 minutes after we pass out of the day and into the night. As we slide farther eastward through the black sky, pushed by twin columns of jet exhaust flowing from the engines mounted below the wings, I know that the swath of light will expand and take on depth, until it is a patch of color that extends out of sight beyond the horizon, resolving itself into a grid of roadways and buildings, each totally different yet indistinguishable from the next. But for now, the visible arc of the sky is dark save the orange slash and a sprinkling of stars overhead.
It’s been a quick crossing, the passage of time helped by both the smooth ride and a steady tailwind. Despite a slightly longer than normal routing due to active military airspace off the coast, the ones and zeros (as well as the hamsters running in the wheels of our flight management computer) have decided that we will be landing 10 minutes early tonight. Hours ago, when we leveled off at our cruise altitude—the cockpit awash in the glare of the early afternoon sun—the Captain announced this fact to the masses in the back and I imagined there was a cheer that went up in the cabin. But in reality all I heard was the hissing of the air vents and circulation fans, and the ever-present low frequency vibration from the engines.
Now under a dark sky, I have my headset on again, as we are back in radio coverage, and after almost four hours of radio silence, there is a near constant buzz of conversation between a controller on the ground and the late evening rush of air traffic funneling in and out of Southern California. On my navigation display, a multitude of white diamonds denoting other airplanes dots the top third of the screen. The rest of the display is as blank as the invisible ocean somewhere below us, its waves cresting and falling in the darkness as we continue eastward in our bubble of darkness, a lone speck of humanity over the empty Pacific.
There is a momentary lull in the radio traffic and the Captain takes advantage of the sudden silence to brief the arrival and approach. Earlier today a rare line of thunderstorms passed over the City of Angels before tearing itself apart against the sharp peaks that form the eastern end of the valley, the freed moisture from the broken clouds flooding into the arid high desert air beyond. At the gate prior to pushing back, and for the past four hours, as the miles to go number on the flight management computer slowly rolled downward, we’d been talking through various arrival weather scenarios, considering our options based on a mixture of knowns and unknowns, both as a necessary method of preparedness and a way to pass the time.
But from among the multitude of our plans, minimum fuel numbers and divert options won’t be necessary choices tonight, as the weather has turned into a typical Los Angeles evening with clear skies and westerly winds. As the blur of lights on the horizon resolves itself into the orderly grid of a city, I crumple up the paper with my scribbled fuel, distance, and time calculations on it, and toss it into the trash bag hanging from the left side armrest of my seat. As far as thought exercises go, it was a good one, but I’m glad we won’t be needing any of that information this evening.