Peak Experiences flying jets at night

by on 05/06/2013

 
SR-71 Blackbird Courtesy of Kurt Womack and Flickr

Have you ever heard of  the Blackbird SR 71 jet? It flies at several times the speed of sound – faster than a bullet.

It must be an awesome experience to fly so fast and so high. I once sat next to a Blackbird pilot on the bus coming home from Oshkosh Airventure – the world’s greatest airshow. So, being a pilot myself,  I plied him with questions.

His answers were beyond the scope of this post but I’d like to pass on what Brian Shul, another Blackbird pilot, has to say about peak experiences in his book Sled Driver. Here it is:

“One moonless night, while flying a routine training mission over the Pacific, I wondered what the sky would look like from 84,000 feet if the cockpit lighting were dark. While heading home on a straight course, I slowly turned down all of the lighting, reducing the glare and revealing the night sky. Within seconds, I turned the lights back up, fearful that the jet would know and somehow punish me. But my desire to see the sky overruled my caution, I dimmed the lighting again.

To my amazement, I saw a bright light outside my window. As my eyes adjusted to the view, I realized that the brilliance was the broad expanse of the Milky Way, now a gleaming stripe across the sky. Where dark spaces in the sky had usually existed, there were now dense clusters of sparkling stars. stars flashed across the canvas every few seconds. It was like a fireworks display with no sound.

I knew I had to get my eyes back on the instruments, and reluctantly I brought my attention back inside. To my surprise, with the cockpit lighting still off, I could see every gauge, lit by starlight. In the plane’s mirrors, I could see the eerie shine of my gold spacesuit incandescently illuminated in a celestial glow. I stole one last glance out the window. Despite our speed, we seemed still before the heavens, humbled in the radiance of a much greater power. For those few moments, I felt a part of something far more significant than anything we were doing in the plane. The sharp sound of Walt’s voice on the radio brought me back to the tasks at hand as I prepared for our descent.”

I had a very similar experience in the cockpit of a B707 many years ago over Africa in the middle of the night. I was in the First Officer’s seat and the Captain was sitting on my left, doing crossword puzzles. I looked outside and saw the glory of creation before me. There was St Elmo’s fire twinkling on the windscreen wipers and radiating out from the bulbous nose of the plane. Cumulus clouds of the inter-tropic convergence zone were towering above us – right up to about 45 00 feet, and they were illuminated like flickering fluorescent lamps with almost continuous lightning discharges. The sky was like black velvet with millions of laser pointed stars spiking through it. I was awestruck in that timeless moment. I don’t know if this was a peak experience, but it has stayed with me for the rest of my life.

I beckoned to the Captain. He looked up but he didn’t seem to see it at all. There was a kind of skin on his eyes – like the nictitating membrane that protects some birds’ eyes. And that was the moment I decided that airline flying was not for me. If that was where I was going – to be so dulled by the concrete thinking of routine procedures that I would no longer be able to see …

A wise man once warned me about the dangers of routine work. Its efficient but it extracts a price. That price is the dulling of creativity. Fortunately we have ways of avoiding this fate. We need to take our awareness daily to the field of the transcendent – to stop time and experience pure abstraction. This blesses, refreshes and glorifies the boundaries of time and space we choose to live in.

And improves our health. Plenty of research supporting me here.

How you do this is your affair. I do it with Transcendental Meditation. I’m mentioning the brand because, having been an authorised TM teacher for over 30 years, I have been privileged to meet many many people practicing many forms of meditation. And I have formed the conviction that most other techniques do not deliver the breadth and depth of benefits that TM does.

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