Crashing through the night

Most flights across the Atlantic from Europe to North America – from London to New York, for instance, or to Raleigh-Durham – start in the morning and end in the afternoon of the same day. And most flights the other way start in the afternoon and arrive at the dawn of the next day.

I don’t know why the air companies choose daytime for one direction and nighttime for the other, but the reason for the long span of daylight in the westerly direction and the short darkness in the other is of course Earth’s rotation. It spins counterclockwise as seen from the north (like the other planets except Uranus and like the Sun). If you move westward, you’re chasing the Sun and your day will be slightly longer. I remember reading that someone – Buckminster Fuller? the Arizona architect-guru Paolo Soleri? – drove frantically westward along a desert highway to demonstrate to students in his car that you can’t keep up with the Sun: you can break the speed limit but the Sun goes relentlessly down to the horizon ahead. The airplane outstrips the car but the most it, too, can do, is lengthen the day.

Because of a smaller added factor, the eastward movement of prevailing winds, the westward journey is actually, besides apparently, longer: about eight hours westward, seven eastward, or a bit more depending on which airport.

On top of these is the effect of time-zones: east American clocks are five hours earlier than British ones.

So the plane starts from Europe at, say, 11:00, and lands at what is by European time 11+8 = 19:00, but this by eastern American time is only 14:00. So you change your watch and it tells you that the journey through a seemingly interminable day has taken only three hours! On the way back the plane starts at, say, 18:00 and arrives at what is by American time 18+7 = 1:00 AM, but by European time it is 6:00, so the crash through the brief night has nominally taken as much as 12 hours.

It’s important to get a seat at a window, well away from the wing, and on the side away from Sun-dazzle. In this journey that means simply the north: right on the way westward, left eastward. (For flights at other latitudes and directions and times, some geometrical thought is required.)

I had to make this double journey for a sad reason, on September 19 westward and the night of September 21/22 eastward. That looks like a recipe for double jetlag, but I fend that off – mostly – by just feeling like whatever the local time is. It seems paradoxical that I should be thus obedient to the clock, since I’m perpetually unsure of the time, the weekday, the date, or even the year, and of when things happened. Perhaps it’s this very stupidity about time that enables me to feel it’s breakfast-time in the continent I’ve just arrived in rather than the one I’ve just left.

Making the trans-Atlantic journey so close to September 23, the autumn equinox, made it simple in a grand way. At the equinox the Sun rises exactly in the east, and sets exactly in the west.

And that doesn’t mean the sunset is exactly behind the plane, and the sunrise exactly ahead. Both are visible from the north side of the plane, because the route is a Great Circle route, curving far north of what would appear to be the straight-line route on a rectangular map. If you get your eye down behind New York on a globe and look toward Britain, the shortest distance clearly starts northeastward over Newfoundland and ends sputeastward over Ireland.

The plane climbed through the several thousand feet of haze in which – without knowing it till we go up in a plane – we live. It approached the roof of clouds like a fish nosing a pond’s surface; shreds of cloud raced past, and suddenly we were out into total clarity. There, behind us, was the Sun in utter power. Across the white tops of ten thousand clouds streamed whiter light.

The Sun turned orange and sank; ahead, the lower slice of the sky, and then higher slices, went through the several changes of color of which one becomes night.

Knowing that this Sun which has just set behind will rather shortly rise ahead gives a sense that the night is a short black block, with the Sun swimming furtively underneath it. Stars! Two of them are the light on the wing’s forward edge and another on a long stalk from the wing’s tip; others are the Big Dipper.

For a few hours there is no light over the black horizon ahead, but you know there will be. It is a suspicion, then a touch of grayness, then a faintly blue grayness – then a dagger of burning orange. On this morning the burning orange was crossed with flakes of black cloud at many heights. Below was cloud-free enough that dots and lines of artificial light showed like faint constellations.

Nobody else as far as I could see on either side of the plane was looking out, either at the sunset or the dawn; all the window blinds were down.

4 thoughts on “Crashing through the night”

1. Bill Monroe says:

Hi again Guy,
Thanks for the “To Know the Stars”.
Copies on the way to my grandsons in Georgia and Maryland.
Your thoughts on flying strike home.
I flew from age 15 until 38 when the
Navy swapped my aircraft (anything I could get my hands on)
for a standard government steel desk.
The part I miss most is the grandeur of the skies, particularly
during the 12 hour plus patrols over the seas enjoying both
sunrise, sunset and the heavens overhead.
Clear skies!
Bill

2. Fantastic painting. (at the top). Large brush strokes are so often coarse and unrefined, but you manage to bring elegance into it.

3. Anthony Barreiro says:

I don’t like to fly in airplanes, but when I do I always try to get a window seat and spend most of the flight looking out the window. The view from 30,000 feet above sea level is the best thing about air travel (Getting to the other side of the continent or the planet in a matter of hours is a profoundly mixed blessing).

4. Guy,
Didn’t the Concorde overtake the sun when flying West?

Gorgeous paintings. Who else could be so Cartesian on the one hand and so poetic on the other.