The moon rises out of the haze of the horizon, just minutes after the sun sets. The sky is still an azure shade of blue, and the clouds scattered across the ocean’s surface below us still have enough depth and texture to stand out individually, not yet faded into the gray murk that fills the minutes spanning the indistinct time between day and night. The moon is just hours past full, and even as it sails upward through the haze and the light-distorting thickness of the atmosphere at the horizon, it appears as a perfect sphere bobbing upward from the depths of the sea.
It’s early Spring, and orbital mechanics have rotated the Northern Hemisphere towards longer days. This means that for any given late morning or early afternoon eastbound departure, we meet the terminator line between day and night farther to the east with each passing day. As soon as Spring turns to Summer, we will be seeing the West Coast in daylight, at first as just a vague outline in the distance under the last rays of the day’s sun, and then, as a clearly defined landmass seen sometimes all the way to the runway and gate before the light fades as the calendar approaches the Summer Solstice.
On this flight, we are going to run out of daylight about 250 miles from the coast, leaving us to fly that distance—and the following 30 minutes of over-land flying—in darkness. Except tonight it won’t be fully dark, as the full moon, reflecting the light of the over the horizon sun, will be illuminating the night sky for us, highlighting any rouge cloud buildups that may have drifted into our path. The feedback from the radar sweep on both navigation displays—currently empty of precipitation—provides some level of bad weather avoidance, but nothing beats the human eyeball.
Passing through the deeper shades of the color pallet, the sky continues to darken, while the moon continues to rise as we fly eastward on wings of gossamer and steel—and composite. As the moon clears the visual fuzz at the horizon is takes on clarity and brightness while seeming to shrink in size, due to what is often called the Moon Illusion. The top of the hour weather report from Seattle rolls off the printer, and I take a minute to read about the conditions there. When I look back outside, the sky has darkened slightly more, and the moon now looks like a plate of burnished bronze, reflecting so brightly that when I stare at it and then close my eyes I see an after-image etched on the inside of my eyelids.
We coast in as full darkness comes to the world and minutes later we are given a descent clearance. The clouds below have long since disappeared into the murk and blackness, but it is only as we start down through their tops that the moon starts to disappear as well. For a moment, as the moon’s perfectly circular form shimmers and melts into an indistinct round ball, a rainbow-colored halo forms around it, and then that too fades away as we descend farther into the night.