Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Pilot’s View

We're 45 minutes out of Daytona Beach bound for Key West on a summer evening. Viewed from our altitude, the sun has just begun its dip below the horizon, leaving us in muted daylight as darkness settles across the land below. We're flying a Beechcraft Duchess with one of my multi-engine students in the left seat. The two passengers in the back are both private pilot students who are experiencing their first airborne view of nightfall. They remind me of why the transition from day to night has always been my favorite time to take people for their first flight in a light airplane.

The two students in the backseat have been commenting on the beauty of the transformation taking place below us. They remark on how everything looks so different, but much is still recognizable and familiar. We watch as buildings, roads, farms and towns gradually fade from view to be replaced by lights that slowly grow in intensity among the shadows as the twilight fades. Randomly scattered lights are almost everywhere across the countryside, but many more gather to form the recognizable patterns of towns and highways. The harshness of the urban environment is slowly replaced by the beauty of its own lights. The street lights create small, warm, friendly pools of light; some are white, others have a slight yellow or blue tint, providing variety that can only be noticed from above. Signs add brighter dots of color clustered in the business districts. Even now, after 30 years of flying, I still enjoy the beauty I find in the night sky.

Southbound at 8,000 feet, we have a line of towering cumulus clouds paralleling our course to the west, but on our left and ahead to the south, the sky is clear. The billowing clouds range in color from cottony white at the top through descending shades of gray, blue and black at the lower levels. The low angle of the setting sun paints exposed portions of the clouds brilliant shades of pink, orange and red. Almost-constant lightning within the clouds make them appear to shimmer and sparkle.

We had hoped to make it to Key West in time to enjoy the evening ritual on Sunset Pier, but our departure was delayed by Florida's regularly scheduled afternoon thunderstorms. None of us are disappointed. We realize what we're witnessing is a sunset view available almost exclusively to light-plane pilots and their passengers. You're not likely to have this view from the cabin of an airliner cruising in the flight levels. We all agree the sunset we're watching is the most beautiful we've ever seen.

When we land at Key West International, it's just a quick cab ride down to Duval Street for a genuine "cheeseburger in paradise." Then we stroll around town, checking out the shops and street performers, thoroughly enjoying the carnival-like atmosphere. Part of the reason I learned to fly was for the promise of adventure in faraway exotic lands, and although Key West is "technically" part of the United States, it's still easy to imagine that the "Conch Republic" belongs in an alternate universe.


Add Comment