Blue Skies Ahead. By Owen Zupp.

2015 has been and gone, while 2016 lies ahead untouched and full of potential. Yet as this new year dawned, it was like a good many before. The alarm clocked buzzed at 3am and a day’s flying needed to be flown. Four sectors – two south, two north.

As I drove to the airport, my vehicle was lonely as it made its way towards the city. My children were excited, but asleep. They were travelling to ‘Grandma and Grandpa’s’, but this time I was not flying them. The car's headlights lit up the trees that edged the motorway and reached into the darkness ahead. Occasionally the eyes of the wildlife glowed from the undergrowth, but otherwise life was sparse. Yet as I neared the city the flow of vehicles out of town increased as revellers headed home after an eve of fireworks and celebrations.

Never one for resolutions defined by a calendar, I was well rested but a little reflective. My entire working life has been ruled by a roster. Weekends and public holidays were never in the frame as a paramedic or pilot – they were just another day. In my past life, New Years Eve was a blur of crowds and blocked side-streets hampering the ambulance’s passage. There would be kisses from pretty girls and swinging forearms from drunk ‘patrons’. They were the best of times – they were the worst of times.

When I began to fly, I soon realised that the festive season was a peak period for travel. My airline career confirmed the fact by nights away from home or early starts on empty roads. In hotel rooms around the world, a deep sleep would be broken by raised voices and pyrotechnics as people farewelled the year that was. A few hours later I would check out of the foyer as others staggered in.

Still, I have no regrets.

I have seen that first dawn of the new year many times. The first rays of the sun breaching the horizon and illuminating the sky while the world below remained in darkness for just a little longer. At altitude the passage of night to day, year to year, played out on a scope that fireworks could not rival. The hum of the engines and the wisp of the airflow licking the windscreen the only noise until the radio barked out a brief message to one of the crews witnessing the same dawn.

When the new year approached in 2002 I was in New York. As the crew bus creeped beyond Times Square, the memories of the tragedy of 9/11 were still fresh and very real. There was increased security at every turn and murmurs of new dangers were on everybody’s lips. From the moment we arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport, there was a sense of tension as the television monitors in gate lounges showed images of celebrations and festivities, while the tape at the bottom of the screen warned of a heightened terror threat level.

As we taxied for departure, JFK was veiled in relative darkness. The majority of captains had opted not to illuminate their tail fins with their ‘logo lights’, but preferred to move about the airport in stealth. It not only served as a reminder of the world’s fragile state, but in the present tense made air traffic control increasingly difficult. With midnight only hours away, the line of passenger jets queued in anonymity, a line of red, white and green navigation lights broken in sequence by white nameless taxi lights and flashing red beacons.

One by one they launched into the darkness, their landing gear retracted and lights extinguished with apparent haste, for there had been rumours of a plot using surface-to-air missiles. We departed when the time came, but there were no missiles or attacks or even the rapid-fire radio banter that characterises JFK. There was just an odd sense of understatement and quiet at one of the world’s busiest airports. We set course and 2003 arrived a short time later.

In 2015, the world was a different place and I was in a different land. I was home and the airport was stirring into life with the first departures still an hour away. The pre-dawn darkness was interrupted by brightly lit hangars and the amber beacons of tugs, towing their aircraft about the taxiways. From the car I could see my aircraft parked, still a kilometre from the terminal, its flanks adorned with Snoopy and the ‘Peanuts’ characters, promoting the New Year’s day launch of the film. My kids stirred from their slumber, excited by the airport and their Dad’s ‘cool’ jet.

Despite the early hour, the terminal was brimming with people. The coffee shop was trading at an incredible rate and the sale of neck pillows seems to be at an all-time high. Along with my fellow pilot and crew, we waited for the tug to tow Charlie Brown and his friends to the gate. The dawn has broken by now, but a tinge of orange still tints the clear blue sky above.

The wind sock puffed out at a friendly pace and the first day of a new year could not be better for flying. In time we taxi to the runway’s end, line up on the centreline and advance the thrust levers. The engines spooled up and breathed with full gusto before that familiar, comforting acceleration projected the aircraft down the runway.

The nose rose into the air and at 500 feet, I turned the jet to the east. The sun had cleared the horizon and now highlighted the sails of early morning yachts. A few thousand feet above us, a long haul crew’s night drew to a close as they prepared to land after a flight that has left an entire year behind. When they  passed by, we turned south and back towards the coast, cleared to climb and be on our way. Another new year, another public holiday, another day at work for many. The young pilot beside me was smiling and another year had begun.

May there be blue skies ahead for us all in 2016.

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