The Liberty Gazette
June 16, 2015Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: The long night is nearly over. On takeoff our Learjet pitches up steeply, rocketing skyward into the firmament. Flying fast in a mountainous region during the darkness before dawn, altitude is a friend. Climbing away from Reno-Tahoe International airport at more than 6,000 feet per minute we clear the rocks handily in a couple minutes. At twelve thousand feet we are cleared to fly direct to our final destination, Salt Lake City. Rolling into a steep left turn eastbound the jet responds like a sports car. Less than 15 minutes from leaving the ramp we are settled in, cruising almost seven miles above the earth at nearly 80 percent the speed of sound.
Stars above still glow but in our ascending view the pitch black sky transitions to hues of dark green and blue to a purple-red then a pale-orange glow as our eyes finally lower to a silvery-white crescent along the curve of the earth. The sun has not yet peaked over the horizon but there is enough light to illuminate the uneven blankets of clouds below and before us. The race is on. Will we reach our beginning descent point before looking full force into the brilliant light, or will we dig out our Ray-Bans so that we can at least see the instrument panel? Moving from winter to spring and summer, the sun wins most of the time, but along the way with the changing weather we are treated to some incredible views of this magnificent wild world that envelops us.
Having spent thousands of hours flying at night I have seen many sunsets and sunrises: sometimes a glorious view, but sometimes painful to look into the fireball for aircraft one cannot see. My first routes took me east with the morning before dawn and west with the night, arriving after sunset. When I was finally assigned a north-south route, I rejoiced.
Once, while flying northbound at 35,000 feet, I watched a rocket launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base as it climbed from the still dark surface of the earth, up into the rising sunlight, crossing that divide between night and day. The bright glowing light of the rocket’s exhaust changed to a fanned-out spray of its vapor trail and then, boom, disintegrated, showering down toward the earth, its gases turning to ice crystals refracting light until it once again dropped into darkness.
When the sun is low on the horizon the jet’s contrails (water vapor exiting the engines) cast a long shadow on the clouds. At the front end of the shadow is a brilliant light caused by the sun’s rays bending around our aircraft. As we get closer to the clouds, in the middle of this halo-like light is the silhouette of our Learjet. This phenomenon is known as The Glory. I stifle an urge to make a UFO report.
And then there is the vague, early morning half-light illuminating the highest peaks in the Cascade Mountain Range as we top out on a flight from Oakland to Seattle. Crisp and clear is each tall peak in the two-hundred-mile visibility. I pull out my thermos and have a cup of joe as the world wakes up.