‘What’s that light in the sky?’ asked my wife, Jean. I looked back over my shoulder, and my jaw dropped. Near the horizon, a blinding beam projected downward as if from an alien saucer. We were on downwind in the traffic pattern, practicing night landings in darkness.
‘Could it be from a tall crane?’ I asked, mystified.
‘Seems too high above the ground for that,’ said Jean. ‘Maybe it’s a police helicopter using a floodlight.’
Refocusing on my next landing, I completed another circuit before looking again. This time on downwind the bright light was gone; in its place a fluorescent squiggle zigzagged across the jet-black sky.
‘Looks almost like a thunderhead,’ I said, ‘illuminated from behind.’
‘Sort of,’ said Jean, ‘but I’ve never seen one in total darkness before. Can the sun illuminate clouds so long after nightfall?’ No hint of sunlight remained in the sky.
‘Good question. It would take mighty tall clouds to be lighted by sun after dark like this.’ I again focused on landing, this time to a full stop.
Even before those strange lights appeared, the evening had been memorable. That afternoon the Flying Carpet had been called aloft by fair-weather clouds beckoning from the sky like lures calling to fish.
‘Shall we fly to Payson for dinner?’ I’d proposed to Jean on a whim. While only 50 miles from our urban Phoenix home airport, Payson floats a sleepy world away in the next valley. Solitude may be found there among cool pines of the high country. I’ll admit I was surprised when my wife consented to join me for such frivolous adventure. For Jean, tennis or gardening usually hold more charm than flight without a specific purpose. Most of our voyages are longer ones, pursuing clearly defined missions. Even I felt a small twinge of guilt.
‘Hope this isn’t silly,’ I said to Jean in the car. ‘By the time we get to the airport, preflight the plane, and tie down at Payson, we could almost have driven there.’
‘Ah, but that’s not why we’re going, is it?’ she said.
‘No,’ I laughed. Frankly, I couldn’t believe my excitement over this small excursion. For once neither packing or laborious flight planning were required; there was no hurry to get anywhere, and no distant weather to fret about.
‘Would you like to fly, Jean?’
‘I’d love to,’ she replied, and launched us smoothly into sapphire skies. Immediately we knew we’d done the right thing. Legions of emerald mountains drew our eyes to the horizon, while contrary to its name the Verde River glided silver-blue beneath us.
Joining the Beeline Highway through its pass, we threaded Mazatzal Mountain summits gilded golden by the sinking sun. On the other side we banked northward toward sprinkled glitter – the windows of Payson sparkling amid tall pines from across the Tonto Valley.
Tuning the radio, we were greeted by an automated weather broadcast. As always when approaching Payson, Jean and I reminisced about the simpler times when unicom was answered by the short-order cook working the airport diner. In those days winds and active runway were broadcast to the crackle of frying eggs, and pilots could reserve a table and order breakfast while inbound for landing.
Payson Airport is a peaceful place, except for weekend mornings in summertime when fly-in aviators congregate over omelets. Touching down in the blush of waning sun, we joined one other lonely airplane on the ramp and climbed hillside stairs to the restaurant. There Jean and I dined overlooking the runway, to the tune of teen waitresses giggling in the kitchen.
‘I’ve never liked that old cliché, ‘hundred-dollar hamburger,” I observed to Jean between bites of the customary airport fare. ‘It sounds so wasteful, as if some lowly sandwich were truly the only justification for flying.’ She agreed. Although our dinner flight might loosely fit the ‘$100 hamburger’ profile, today’s aerial adventure had already far surpassed that stereotype.
After eating, Jean and I wandered the deserted taxiway to Payson’s fly-in campground, our hands clasped tightly under an indigo sky streaked with fiery clouds. Surprising how romantic a country airport can be at dusk.
‘Remember the time we flew here with Don and Linda for dinner?’ asked Jean, speaking of good friends. ‘Tonight’s sky reminds me of it.’
‘I do indeed remember. It was Don’s birthday, wasn’t it? In the heat of July?’
‘That’s right,’ said Jean. ‘Linda packed a gourmet picnic dinner complete with crystal and white tablecloth, even wine for those not piloting.’ Our faces brightened simultaneously at memories of elegant sunset dining on grass near the runway.
Strolling back to the airplane, we scanned fruitlessly for elk running the perimeter fence. They jump it sometimes, leading caravans of pickup trucks on madcap dashes across the airfield. But breaking the solitude this lovely evening were only birds singing from the surrounding pines.
We launched from Payson just in time to watch a second sunset from aloft, then flew homeward into blood-red skies. Sparkling taillights guided us through the Beeline Highway’s pass, and soon the glowing streets of Phoenix beckoned from ahead like copper fabric under purple dusk.
‘Game for some night landings?’ I asked Jean, when the airport beacon came into view. She consented, and after negotiating stop-and-goes with the control tower we made our circuits in the radiance of those bizarre extraterrestrial lights.
To our surprise, that luminous mystery would be solved later that night on the 10 o’clock television news – incredibly, what we’d seen was the ignition and sun-lighted trail of a Minuteman missile, launched from Vandenburg Air Force Base some 500 miles away on the California coast.
How brief our journey had been that evening, and yet how exhilarating. ‘We could have driven somewhere for dinner,’ I mused to Jean while entering a mere 1.5 hours of flight time into my logbook, ‘and missed the whole wonderful evening.’
‘That’s not entirely true,’ she replied, grinning. ‘I agree that by driving we’d have missed all the fun, but finding a $100 hamburger by car would have been easy enough.’