Visitors in the Night

February 24, 1999

They come from outer space, sometimes with regularity, other times as random wanderers.

Strange names these: delta-Lenoid, Draconids, pi-Puppids.

I always try to stop and watch. One visitor is generally enough to bring a smile.

This night we were supposed to have many visitors. I was tired but I needed to see a friendly face in the night sky. The night was calm with a slight haze and some high clouds on the horizon. I look up and wonder if it will be worth the trouble.

I was airborne in minutes and turned to a northeast heading. The transponder glows in the lower right corner of the instrument panel. Each time the air traffic control radar hits the airplane, the glow tells me that I have been seen. Silently the radio sends back my altitude and I know that someone is watching me.

I wonder who is going to see me tonight. I intend to climb and keep climbing till I find clear air and the Milky Way and will search for my friends from Piscid. Passing through eight thousand feet I am disappointed. The sky is clear, the Milky Way glowing, but there are no visitors.

I turn off all the instrument lighting so I will be able to see more.

Hey - they call it visual flight rules, I hope I can fly by looking out the window. And look I do, head plastered up against the canopy, gazing at all those stars.

Slowly I drift in a complete circle, disappointed, pondering what to do next.

Ok - Let's see how high this airplane will go.

With the nose pointed to the darkest portion of the sky I increase the throttle and ease the nose up. Nine thousand, ten thousand feet. The rules say that over 12,000 I have to use oxygen. Ok so I have to break the rules tonight.

The thin air slows down the rate of climb to only 300 feet per minute. I think I can go to 14,000 feet, which means maybe 10 or 12 more minutes of this. I relaxed in my seat.

Whoosh - The visitor. A magnificent meteor slashed across the canopy of the night. One solitary meteor, not quite the shower I expected, but high drama none the less.

Big smile and I keep on climbing.

Soon there was a moment to make a decision. Here I was, high above the metropolitan area, thinking about mountains in the west. I had always been able to say that I have walked higher then I have ever flown. 14,496 feet. The airplane was struggling to keep climbing the wings lightly rocking on the edge of not wanting to fly any more. I kept climbing.

14,400 feet.

I thought for a moment and decided that I would just have to walk higher. The Saratoga clawed its way to 14,600 feet and the wings were quivering. All I needed to do was lower the nose and pick up some speed and smooth flight would return. I leveled off and dropped back to 14,500 feet and looked down.

The most awesome sight lay before me. There was no small airliner window and thick cabin wall to insulate me. I could open the door if I wanted, and step out into the night.

This was HIGH. Really HIGH. Maybe it's the height fear in everyone at some stage, but my heart started to pound. Logic told me I was safe, but the pounding went on.

One of the things that surprised me was how close together everything appeared. Cities that were 30 to forty minutes apart by freeway seemed to be a bicycle ride away. I could see over 75 miles in each direction, spanning one hundred and fifty miles outside my windshield. Millions of lights. Millions of people. I stared with my mouth open at the expanse of it all.

All those people, all that life and activity.

I guess it was fitting.

A solitary meteor

And a lone pilot riding in the night sky.