I stand underneath the tail and point my flashlight upwards, highlighting the dark shape of the rudder and elevator. Big raindrops, blown horizontally by a strong north wind, briefly appear in the flashlight’s beam and then disappear back into the darkness, where I can hear them wetly splatter against the side of the fuselage above me. All around me, water droplets drip from the rest of the plane’s surfaces where the rain has collected, but before they can reach the ground, these too are blown away in the wind gusts that rip across the ramp. Beyond the outline of the tail, water vapor—maybe clouds or maybe fog—streams through in illuminated pools cast by the lights mounted on the terminal roof.
The nighttime ramp area around our plane is a well-choreographed symphony of chaos. The roar of the auxiliary power unit exhaust above my head all but drowns out the clatter and squeak of the belt loader as it shuttles a steady stream of cardboard boxes from the shelter of a baggage cart, through the rain-soaked air, and onward to the safety of the bulk cargo hold. Beyond it, a two-level pallet loader is lifting ULD containers from the ground, raising them 20 feet up into the air, and sliding them into the aft cargo hold. In front of the wing, barely visible through the blowing rain, another loader is doing the same thing at the forward cargo hold. I turn and squint through the rain as I hear the steadily increasing whine of a turbine engine starting up and watch the plane at the gate next to where we are parked push back—the human-sized wing walkers, in their reflective yellow rain gear, are dwarfed beneath the massive wing of the Boeing 777.
Behind me there is a sudden rattling noise as a baggage tug, its driver hunched down in the seat in an attempt to stay dry, pulls a caravan of four ULD containers. The tug and four carts come to a crashing halt at the aft cargo door, the first cart exactly aligned with the lower end of the pallet loader, ready to transfer the ULD to the plane. I walk forward from the tail and follow the wet, gleaming curve of the aft section of the fuselage forward, to the left landing gear assembly. From there, I push my way into the wind and blowing water, my flashlight beam following the trailing edge of the wing above me. I step over a fuel line and around two cones set in front of a fuel truck, its engine rumble just audible above the background noise of the ramp as I pass close by. Water cascades down its windshield between intermittent swipes of the wiper blades, and the flashing hazard lights glow a sickly shade of orange in the precipitation.
At the wingtip, I check that the red navigation light is on, and then track the front of the wing, back past the fuel truck, around the engine, and to the front of the landing gear assembly. I momentarily pause my walk-around there. Shielded from the worst of the wind and rain by the landing gear, I watch the pallet loader lift a ULD up and then roll it forward to where it disappears into the cargo hold. Water drips down my neck and runs underneath the collar of my shirt, causing my to shiver and ineffectually brush water from my hair.
Our load planning showed just about 60,000 pounds of cargo going on board tonight for the eight-hour flight home. I see that there are three more ULDs to go and hope that those are the last of them and that we might get out of here early. We’ve been on the road for four days already, and this is our final leg of the trip. I am looking forward to sleeping in my own bed. I force my attention back to the airplane and move out into the wind and rain to complete my walk-around, with the opening line to a mostly forgotten U2 song rattling around my head.
Three hours later and mostly dried out, I stare through the window as we glide eastward, just north of Tokyo Bay, the massive sprawl of the city completely filling the glass of the side windows. I reach forward and turn off the floor heater, which has been working to dry off my damp feet since takeoff. The click of the switch is loud in the stillness of the warm and dark cockpit. Out the front windshield, the coastline of Japan—a stark line where the city lights abruptly stop—appears in the distance, with the dark waters of the Pacific Ocean beyond. And somewhere, six hours beyond that, is home.