The brightening dawn light begins to wrap around us like a coat. Daybreak is slowed because we are running away across the western horizon, our nose pressed into the deep night. The long miles tick by.
The air has been made uneasy by a passing late-winter storm. Hard-edged lumps and bumps pitch and roll the machine in between long, eerie periods of smoothness. The weather radar scans the empty horizon.
Between the jolts you could be convinced that we are hanging motionless in the night. The sense of movement is only conveyed through numbers on screens, the airspeed, groundspeed, fuel quantity counting down, distance shortening.
A harsh thump sends a jolt through the airframe then quiet again. To the right I see two pinpricks of light disappearing behind the window frame. It must be wake trailing behind another unseen, unnoticed nighttime traveller.
Soon, a long, golden wedge of sunlight reaches forward from behind my left shoulder. We sink gently towards the holding fix that marks out one of the corner of Heathrow’s operational area. These four corners, like the field of play, encircle the airport. Soon the area inside will be bustling with aircraft but for now there are just a handful scoring ‘S’ shapes in the sky.
These long overnight sectors are often unpopular amongst colleagues. But I love them. I love the hollowness of the night and yet the sense of spearing through the frigid atmosphere, the privilege of watching another day arrive.
The giant A380 ahead banks left, its white wings catching the morning light against the receding blackness to the west. We slip between flat plates of fractured cloud, finessing our descent to a constant, unbroken flow towards the runway. We turn, guided behind the leading aircraft, towards a solid shelf of cloud. The oblique light shows us a deep trench slicing through it marking the pathway of the 380.
Nearest to us the trench has widened, vortexes separating and circulating the cloud top. Feathery tendrils plunge back into the hole. The base of the gully is rounded, a perfect but temporary demonstration of the magic of flight. For a moment this churning effect slides down the long furrow, mimicking the flight path of the aircraft, the complete length gently spinning from the passing encounter.
We fly just above and I watch as the softening scar filling in. In moments we will likely make our own pathway and maybe some lucky soul will enjoy its playful beauty. But now I concentrate on spoken instructions, on converging numbers, on funnelling in towards the glittering approach lights. Flaps move, the gear drops, the idling engines wake to brace against the drag.
We are stopped again. A brief rest amidst the ceaseless movement across the planet. Meetings, connecting flights, relatives, friends, happiness, bitterness, hopes and needs. We play a small and unseen part in each of these.
I sign the logbook, the batteries are off. Soon I’ll sleep. It’s sometimes easy to get a sense that we are always moving, never arriving, often leaving. The night makes these rare and quiet moments all the sweeter.