Originally published in the EAA UL41 Chapter Newsletter, May 2013
Sometimes we pilots really do have the best seat in the house.
There are certain things that I love to see from the air, like a great sunset, the fall colors, or the Chicago skyline. Those things photograph well. I have lots of pictures.
But no camera of mine can capture one of my favorite things to see from the air: a full or nearly full moon rising at night.
With the moon’s ever-changing schedule and Wisconsin’s ever-changing weather, plus the need to be airborne at the right time, this is a very rare sighting for me. Rare enough that I have only seen it four times in nearly 3,000 flight hours.
Yes, I really do remember exactly how many times. It’s that cool! Number four happened on April 27th.
My 16-year-old flight student Jordan is in the final stage of private pilot training. We had hoped to do the required night cross-country in the winter, when you can fly at night and still be home at a reasonable dinner hour. But we could never get the weather to cooperate with our schedules. Finally, on April 27th, we saw good weather coming and managed to do the flight. It turns out that this delay was a good thing.
Jordan is always interested in practicing things in training that he’ll do in the “real world” later. We could have planned a short 50-mile out-and-back night flight to satisfy the FAA requirement, but that would be too easy. Instead we planned a 290-mile round-trip to Eau Claire, where one of his brothers lives.
We flew from Green Bay to Eau Claire in the evening when it was still light out. Then we met up with Jordan’s brother for a $100 hamburger. By the way, I recommend the newly reopened restaurant in Eau Claire’s airline terminal. Check it out. It’s called The Farm on Starr.
Back on the ramp, under a clear, dark sky, I asked, “Hey, where’s the moon?” I remembered seeing a full moon in the sky a few nights before, at around 8:00. I thought it should be out by now.
Well guess what. There’s an app for that. ForeFlight doesn’t have moon data yet, but AeroWeather does. I had my iPad with me. Now I wondered if we might see that elusive moonrise.
“This thing says 10:26 p.m.,” I told Jordan, “but I’m not sure if I’m reading this right.” It was 10:00 now.
We took off and headed east. Jordan’s lesson needed to include some simulated instrument time. I had him wear the Foggles at first, but promised I’d let him see the moon.
We were west of Wausau, well away from any city lights, when I spotted the dark-cherry-red moon slipping up out of the haze. It was only a couple days days past full. Close enough to being round that I’ll call it full. We were pointing almost straight at it. I told Jordan to take off the Foggles. He was in awe!
We watched the moon slowly change to a lighter red, then orange, then yellow. The sky started picking up some light.
“Watch this,” I said as I turned off all the cockpit lights. It was as if the whole world outside got a shade brighter. It’s amazing how much better your eyes can adapt to the night sky with nothing lit in the cockpit.
“Wow!” Jordan said. We were flying along in our nearly pitch-dark little capsule in what might as well have been space. The radio was quiet. What a weird feeling.
I turned the lights back on so that we could see the instruments again, but we were mostly staring at the moon the rest of the flight. We weren’t paying too much attention to the paper navigation log or map anymore – we were using celestial navigation!
We landed at Green Bay just as the control tower was closing, at 11:30 p.m. The moon was bright now. It lit up the airport as we taxied back to Jet Air.
Jordan agreed that this was a great trip! As a flight instructor, showing these kinds of things to the next generation of pilots never gets old.
Several apps and web sites can help you find out whether the moon will be out on your next night flight. Most of these sources also include sunset/sunrise times, as well as official “civil twilight” times to help you with your logbook. Check out the astronomy section of the U.S. Naval Observatory’s web site at www.usno.navy.mil.
Flying at night is special enough, but seeing the moonrise? That’s one of those types of things that keep us all coming back.