When I come back up front from my rest break, I see no light in the sky beyond a wide scattering of stars in the blackness of the cockpit windows. It’s 4am underneath the wings of the plane, but the clocks at our destination, invisible just beyond the curve of the earth, are already showing 5am and the first rays of sunlight are several hundred miles away from hitting those clocks still. I rapidly blink my dry eyes until they tear and then settle into the seat just vacated by the relief officer. Across the cockpit, the Captain pauses from his task of entering weather information into the flight computer and briefs me in on where we are.
Outside, in the distance, the lights of western Florida begin to appear on the horizon, visible only as a vague reflection on the layer of clouds hanging low over the sandy beaches and mangroves forming the coastline. Directly below us, invisible in the darkness, the currents of the Gulf of Mexico, which have been paralleling our flight path for the past hour, are now taking a hard turn to the south, towards the tip of Florida and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. Other than the steadily growing glow in the distance, the world below is void of light, with the last of the brightly lit oil platforms having passed beneath just after we swung offshore south of New Orleans over an hour ago. Above, seemingly a million points of light, with more appearing each second as my eyes adjust, cover the arc of the night sky.
With just a few red-eye and overnight cargo flights in the air, the radio is mostly quiet, and as we glide eastward at 41,000 feet with just over 82% of the atmosphere’s mass below us, other than small distortions and reflections in the glass layers of the cockpit windows, the view of the sky is unblemished by light or air. I quickly locate several of the constellations—by shape, not name—and note that in the two hours I was on break, they have slid higher in the sky and rolled westward overhead due to both the passage of time and our crawl eastwards across the surface of the globe.
In the darkness to the south, the Milky Way—the spiraling arm of our galaxy—stretches upwards from the horizon, visible as nothing more than a splash of white haze across a star-speckled velvet background. In the Northern Hemisphere, around the time of the Fall and Spring equinoxes, it is visible only in the early morning sky, which, due to my natural aversion to waking up early, is not a view I often have. Taking advantage of the timing, I crane my neck upwards against the warm glass of the side window, and visually trace the fine dust cloud of stars until they taper off into nothingness above us.
The lights of the Florida coast roll closer, and Tampa Bay, with its Skyway Bridge, takes shape below us. The controller descends us and clears us to the Lakeland VOR, just to the west of Orlando. I’ve been to Lakeland before in what seems like another lifetime, flying in a small, four-seat training aircraft while working on my instrument rating. I try to visualize the airport but have no recollection of the trip, other than parking next to a SAAB 340—a 35-passenger, two-engine commuter aircraft—which at the time, I thought was huge, but now realize was over 20 times smaller than the plane I currently fly.
Our nose comes down as we start to descend, and the wings briefly roll to the left and then level off as the autopilot works out a heading to fly. The bright lights of Tampa disappear beneath us, replaced by a patchwork of illuminated towns, glowing mutely through a soft layer of clouds. To the south, the scattered lights along Interstate 75, more famously known as Alligator Alley, fade in and out between gaps in the clouds. The latest weather report comes up for Orlando, showing 300-foot ceilings, and reduced visibility and rain. As we descend, and the stars overhead dim and fade away, I shift my attention to the upcoming approach and landing, knowing that 300 miles behind our tail, high up over the dark waters of the Gulf, those points of light are still shining brightly.