We climb out underneath a cobalt blue sky. In the distance, a layer of off-white clouds hangs on the horizon, rolling outwards towards us, while underneath the brown and tan peaks of the Channel Islands rise from a shimmering ocean. I watch the waves break on a solitary strip of sand bounded by cliffs on either side, while the wake of a single boat traces a path through the breakwater. We pass just south of the islands, the California coastline fading away behind our tail, as we push westward against a rising headwind and the rotation of the earth.
There is a point on trans-oceanic flights at which you are no longer leaving wherever you are coming from, and instead have entered the in between spaces. Sometimes this moment aligns with the official moment of coasting out—where you trade away the land-based air traffic controllers and their radar coverage for scratchy HF radios—or, more often than not, thankfully, SATCOM—and position reports at every waypoint. But not always. You look out the window and suddenly realize that there is nothing out there anymore …. except the big blue swirling ocean currents below and the ever so slowly spinning, painted map of the heavens above. In the glare of the daytime or the dimness of the night, it feels like you are pinned in place, with the world and time oozing by you like thick molasses, until you coast in at the other end, and structure returns to your reality.
Of course, you aren’t fully alone in the in between spaces. There are ships making the crossing too, in a much slower fashion—sometimes with their wakes visible, but often not. And there are other aircraft, either present as nothing more than a spot on the traffic display and a periodic voice echoing from the overhead speakers, or as long contrails stretching across the sky, looking like rips in the fabric of space-time during the day and ghostly apparitions blocking the stars at night. Sometimes you’ll even get close enough to see the plane itself, gliding along at the head of the contrail, or if it’s too dry for them to form, seemingly frozen in place until suddenly they accelerate and blast by at a high rate of speed.
The Channel Islands drop over the horizon as we reach 39,000 feet. Once we level off, the computer crunches some numbers and spits out an updated estimated arrival time and fuel on board number when we get there. Happy with both those estimates, I scan the sky and see nothing but the empty blue expanses. However, on our traffic display, a single diamond, 1000 feet below us, is 20 miles ahead and slightly to our south, their course appearing to converge with ours at the next waypoint. Modern technology allows us to select an individual target on the traffic display and see more information about them, including their ground speed. I do this and see that we have a 15 knot overtake, meaning that in about 75 minutes (and 550 miles), if all things stay equal, we’ll pass by the other plane.
Over the next hour the pixels making up the white diamond drop farther and farther down the display screen towards our virtual position. At 15 miles away, staring hard through the front windshield I can just make out the gray smudge of a contrail. At 10 miles, we catch up with the very end of it, where the swirling whiteish-gray bands finally fade away into nothing. Over the next 30 minutes we reel in the other plane, the contrail becoming more and more defined and textured, until the plane surfing at its tip becomes visible. At three miles the details of the plane are clear, and I pull out my camera and start snapping a few pictures.
When we are one mile away, I double-check that the altitude difference is still showing 1000 feet. Out here, a 1000-foot vertical separation is normal, and although being this close laterally at the same time is totally safe, it’s rare that it occurs, especially when aircraft are heading in the same direction. I switch the autopilot from nav mode, where it has been following our flight-planned route through the sky, to heading mode and point the nose a few degrees to the left. We have a safe seven miles of track width to fly in even though we normally are flying the exact centerline. When the display shows .3 miles left of course, I turn the heading bug back to parallel our course with theirs and our nose drifts to the right. The other airplane now sits a half mile away off our right side, and 1000 feet below us.
I watch as our own bright white hull floats down our right hand side. An hour from now, in a fit of boredom, I’ll dredge the Pythagorean theorem out of the dusty recesses of my memory and figure out that they were just under 1,900 feet away from us at the closest point, which, when you account for the vastness of the sky, seems like a scanty mere inches. After several seconds of staring, I remember I have my camera in my hands and take a few more pictures before the other plane slides behind our wing and out of sight. I put the camera away and then put the autopilot back in nav mode. The plane banks right and then back to the left as it captures the course again. The Captain says a quick radio hello to the other plane, like the wave from one bus driver to another, and then we return to the slow crawl through the in between spaces.