Objects On Earth Are Closer Than They Appear

“We all live beneath the great Big Dipper.”

So goes a line in a song I once heard the great Tony Brown sing. As I near the completion of my private pilot’s training, I’ve had more and more opportunities to literally see the wisdom in those words. Here’s a story of one of them.

Night

“A shining beacon in space — all alone in the night.”

– Babylon 5

A night cross-country flight, my first, taking off from a country airport. The plane lifts into the dark sky. The bright white lights of the runway get smaller, and disappear as I pass the edge of the airport. Directly below me, it looks like a dark sky; pitch black except for little pinpoints of light at farmhouses and the occasional car. But seconds later, an expanse of light unfolds, from a city it takes nearly an hour to reach by car. Already it is in sight, and as I look off to other directions, other cities even farther away are visible, too. The ground shows a square grid, the streets of the city visible for miles.

There are no highway signs in the sky. There are no wheels to keep my plane pointed straight. Even if I point the plane due south, if there is an east wind, I will actually be flying southwest. I use my eyes, enhanced by technology like a compass, GPS, and VHF radio beacons, to find my way. Before ever getting into the airplane, I have carefully planned my route, selecting both visual and technological waypoints along the way to provide many ways to ensure I am on course and make sure I don’t get lost.

Soon I see a flash repeating every few seconds in the distance — an airport beacon. Then another, and another. Little pinpoints of light nestled in the square orange grid. Wichita has many airports, each with its beacon, and one of them will be my first visual checkpoint of the night. I make a few clicks in the cockpit, and soon the radio-controlled lights at one of the airports spring to life, illuminating my first checkpoint. More than a mile of white lights there to welcome any plane that lands, and to show a point on the path of any plane that passes.

I continue my flight, sometimes turning on lights at airports, other times pointing my plane at lights from antenna towers (that are thousands of feet below me), sometimes keeping a tiny needle on my panel centered on a radio beacon. I land at a tiny, deserted airport, and then a few minutes later at a large commercial airport.

On my way back home, I fly solely by reference to the ground — directly over a freeway. I have other tools at my disposal, but don’t need them; the steady stream of red and white lights beneath me are all I need.

From my plane, there is just red and white. One after another, passing beneath me as I fly over them at 115 MPH. There is no citizen or undocumented immigrant, no rich or poor, no atheist or Christian or Muslim, no Democrat or Replubican, no American or Mexican, no adult or child, no rich or poor, no Porsche or Kia. Just red and white points of light, each one the same as the one before and the one after, stretching as far as I can see into the distance. All alike in the night.

You only need to get a hundred feet off the ground before you realize how little state lines, national borders, and the machinery of politics and exclusion really mean. From the sky, the difference between a field of corn and a field of wheat is far more significant than the difference between Kansas and Missouri.

This should be a comforting reminder to us. We are all unique, and beautiful in our uniqueness, but we are all human, each as valuable as the next.

Up in the sky, even though my instructor was with me, during quiet times it is easy to feel all alone in the night. But I know it is not the case. Only a few thousand feet separate my plane from those cars. My plane, too, has red and white lights.

How often at night, when the heavens were bright,
With the light of the twinkling stars
Have I stood here amazed, and asked as I gazed,
If their glory exceed that of ours.

– John A. Lomax

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