I will never forget the first time I was scheduled to fly at night. I was a student pilot at Laughlin Air Force Base, Del Rio, Texas, in 1969. We were flying the “Tweet” — the Cessna T-37 jet trainer. It sounded like fun until we realized the scheduler said we all had to report for the preflight briefing at 2100 hours (that’s 9:00 p.m. … at night!) The next question was “why?” Without meaning to be irreverent, someone said, “If God had wanted us to fly at night, He would have put landing lights on birds.” None of us bothered to learn “How do birds land in the dark?”
Fortunately, for all of us second lieutenants who really did not know much about flying at night (or in the day for that matter), we had ground school on “night flying.” Obviously, the airplane does not know whether the sun is up or not. So, all that training we got in the daytime still applied. “Pull back on the stick and the trees get smaller … .” We did learn about the different ways our own senses respond in the dark. For example, one’s depth perception does not work that well “in the dark.” We learned how important it was to pay close attention to the flight instruments. The flight indicator told you “which way was up”; the vertical velocity indicator told you if you were actually going up, or down; the airspeed indicator told you how fast/slow you were going. All those reminders made perfect sense in ground school. It was absolutely critical when you were rolling down the runway and it is pitch black outside.
Enough of the boring “ground school” stuff. Let’s fly. We (the IP — instructor pilot — is sitting right beside you in the T-37) make all the appropriate radio calls; taxi out to the runway; and hear “Cleared for takeoff!” Thankfully, planes do have landing lights that are also “takeoff lights” and they help keep you going straight down the runway. We hit liftoff speed, pull back on the stick and we are flying at night! Incredible! Beautiful! It was amazing! The IP said, “I got it; look around and see the beauty of the night.” Then, after an inspiring moment, back to school.
We immediately realized how important it was to pay attention to our instruments. Without being able to see the ground references, it was critical to know “where you are” in the air. One of the challenges of night flying near Del Rio, Texas, is that there is NOTHING (no big city lights or even little city lights) around you. So, the star-filled sky looks exactly like the random rancher-home lights on the desert floor. One could get quite literally turned upside down. “Keep your eyes on the instruments; cross-check; cross-check; cross-check,” the IP would say. We gradually got the feel of flying at night.
After you learn the technique of flying around the sky and keeping that “cross-check” going, the IP said, “Let’s do some landings!” That is another basic life-skill that one learns in pilot training; the number of landings should equal the number of takeoffs. We learned how to get into the landing pattern (same as daytime), turn to final, keep your eye on the vertical velocity indicator, put the flaps down, put the landing gear down, keep airspeed up, approach the end of the runway, “grease another landing onto the runway” (in your dreams). Well, as they say, “any landing you can walk away from was a good landing.”
Throughout my five years of flying for the Air Force, I never lost that wonder of flying at night. Operationally, the enemy does not care if it is day or night when they attack you. So, the more proficient a pilot becomes, the better the mission will go. I think the most challenging “night flying” was when we had to hover that big Jolly Green Giant over the water in the middle of the night. That may become a Carolina Compass article by itself.
The Bible uses “the night” to teach us many valuable truths about how to live.
As Job was beginning his time of testing, sorrow and grief, the night was especially hard to endure. He wrote, “When I lie down I say, ‘When shall I arise?’ But the night is long, and I am full of tossing till the dawn.” (Job 7:4) Like Job, when we are in a crisis, the night can be excessively painful. The distractions and the blessings that are part of the “daytime” are not there at night.
A 16th-century Spanish poet and priest, St. John of the Cross, wrote the poem “Dark Night of the Soul.” My friend, the bishop, talks about living through his own “dark night of the soul” when his wife died. He still loved and believed in God; he was just going through a very tough time.
Psalm 91 has given courage to soldiers for centuries and is often called the “Soldier’s Psalm.” Psalm 91:5 reminds those in battle, “… you will not fear the terror of the night.”
So, how do we “fly at night” spiritually? We really need to learn because “the night” will come during our journey.
First, put your faith in the One who made the night. Almighty God also knows about “the dark night,” and He can help. He does not go away when the sun goes down. And, He does not leave us alone when our “personal day” turns into a “night.” Trust Him.
Second, remember the Lord Jesus knew how to use the night to rest and to renew His Spirit. “And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet.” (Luke 21:37) On the mountain, in the quiet of the darkness, the Lord Jesus found peace and rest. In the midst of our “night”, He brings peace.
Third, “Cross-check” (capital C) your instruments. Through His sacrifice on the cross, the Lord Jesus won the victory over every enemy who wants to attack us. After His glorious resurrection, He gave us His “instruments” to guide us on the journey. Cross-check His Word; the Bible is our flight manual on how to live. I call it the Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth. Cross-check His Holy Spirit; Jesus promised to give us the Comforter to be with us always. Cross-check His family — the Bride and Body of Christ. Jesus gave us His church to walk with us. “Cross-checking,” like cross-checking in the cockpit, is continually bringing God’s instruments into the chaos of the night. He gives us guidance — His Word; He gives us power — His Spirit; and He gives us a family — His church.
Flying in the daylight is wonderful. Flying at night is “out of this world … and into His light.” “CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF!”
Chaplain Charles C. Baldwin (major general, USAF, retired) is an ordained Southern Baptist minister. He and his wife, Anne, have been married for 46 years and have three married children and ten grandchildren. They are members of the First Baptist Church, Charleston, S.C.