We cross over the coastline of Vietnam, seven miles above Da Nang, with a broken layer of clouds ahead of us that are mostly obscuring the dark waters of the South China Sea. It’s just before three in the morning below us, and the minimal ground lighting paints scattered shapes of dull orange light in the clouds. The last of the lightning filled thunderstorms we’ve been weaving our way through since taking off from Thailand several hours ago have now fallen almost one hundred miles back into the night behind our tail, and the half-moon that greeted us as we broke through the layer on our initial climb out has finally sunk behind the western horizon, leaving a sky absent of light beyond a dim wash of stars.
The radio has been busy since we checked in with Bangkok Control during the climb out, with a mixture of US-based freight aircraft and Asian-based carriers working the long haul north/south routes. We are on an empty repositioning flight, heading to Korea to pick up cargo after completing a charter earlier in the day. The pandemic has decimated our normal flight schedule, and in an effort to keep the planes in the air, the Company has turned towards other types of flying, putting crews and aircraft on airways and runways that have never seen our tail art before.
As a Singaporean Airbus 350 passes by in the darkness to our south, their red beacon glowing in the far distance, I do some quick math. Working backwards from the flight computer’s estimated arrival time, I see that we’ve got just over three hours of flying to go. Despite flying almost 10,000 miles over the past two days, I’m feeling decently rested and decide to let the relief pilot keep watching movies or sleep in the back instead of going on break myself. On a shorter leg like this, a two-pilot crew is sufficient, but as we have some longer legs on this trip, the extra guy is there for when he is needed, even on our shorter legs.
We are talking to Air Traffic Control facilities that I’ve never heard of before. Bangkok Control handed us over to Vientiane Control—a name I mouthed silently several times in the darkness of the cockpit trying to work out the pronunciation—who 30 minutes later, after we had traversed across the top of Laos, passed us along to Ho Chi Min Control. Now, as the last of the lights on the coastline drop beneath the plane’s nose, leaving the ground below darker than the sky above, we are transferred to Sanya Control whose responsibilities include the airspace over the island of Hainan as well as the area to the south. The Captain is working the radios this evening and checks in. A controller with surprisingly crisp English acknowledges and then clears us to a fix downrange. I enter the information into the flight computer and watch as the stars out the window slide slightly to the right and then again sit stationary on the other side of the cold cockpit glass.
Several minutes later, as the miles to go number slowly clicks downward, a glow appears on the southeastern horizon. I double-check the flight map on my iPad, as I am not confident about my southeast Asian geography, and confirm that the nearest landmass in that direction is the main island of the Philippines and is more than 500 miles away and well over the visible curve of the earth, even at our altitude. We continue to work our way northeast, heading towards Hong Kong’s airspace, and then Taiwan’s beyond that. The glow on the horizon gets brighter and brighter until it resolves itself into multiple dots of orange light scattered beneath a broken layer of clouds.
I stare in fascination as the massive fishing fleet below us, each ship marked by a single light, passes by and then disappears out of sight, into the darkness. Sanya Control hands us off to Hong Kong Control, where a very British-sounding, female voice tells us that we have been radar identified. With our nose pointing at the Formosa Strait to the northeast, I stare into the darkness to our west, where, somewhere, beyond my visual range and below a layer of clouds, is Hong Kong, and mainland China beyond. Due to the darkened world below, the weather, and a flight path designed to keep us out of Chinese airspace, I won’t see any of that on this trip. But that’s okay. There are always other flights and other trips in the future, and maybe on one of them, I’ll come this way again.