There is a place I like to go to at the end of the day after the observation tower is closed and the helicopter is washed and tied down for the night. Most people have a place in this world that they think of as a “happy place” and I’ve certainly found mine.
Just after dinner, as the sun is setting over the horizon and the sky erupts into a fiery dance of oranges and reds offset by looming shadow clouds in the distance from a storm, I climb up to the heli-deck and there it is. My helicopter sits in the same place, facing the same way every day.
Her paint is blue, but battered and worn down. Faded after years in the sun, the blue paint is dull and pockmarked with patches and quick fixes from where corrosion of salt water took hold at some point. She has two silver stripes, her racing stripes, painted along the middle of her side running from her nose and along her tail. Her skids are wrapped in bright blue floats that are semi-deflated whenever we aren’t flying.
I walk around her, running my hand along the rivets in her skin feeling the smooth aluminum under the tail cone as I pass beneath it, and I make my way over to the passenger side of the helicopter. There it is, my place, the best place in the world.
While the sun sets I sit on the pontoon and send messages to my family and friends from my GPS, telling them that I’ve been flying that day and am back on the ship, all is well and I love them. And I watch. This night is particularly beautiful as the sun sets to my right setting the sky ablaze and reflecting off of the mirror like smooth surface of the ocean – I’ve not seen it this calm before. The ship is drifting, the only sound is the lull of the generator exhaust from far at the back of the ship and the occasional crewman voice from somewhere below that I cannot see.
The windsock at the front of the ship sits limp, there is almost no wind tonight, just a gentle breeze that makes the sock flutter briefly, and keep me cool. To my left is the east, already dark and getting darker as the sun dips lower. In the darkness I can make out the towering shapes of cumulus storm clouds, and faintly the streamers of rain falling from the thunderstorm raging nearly 20 miles away. I wonder if it will make it to us tonight, and if I will even notice.
Finally as the sun makes its final descent beneath the horizon line and darkness begins to envelop the ship and me with it I lay back onto the pontoon. Stretching my body out along the length of the float and I look up into the sky. I look past the rotor tie-downs, and I look past the straps anchoring the helicopter to the deck, I look past her rotor blades and I look up into the night sky where millions of stars have begun to come to life.
The shadow of my helicopter in my periphery fades into the darkness and I exhale a calm breath in the cool breeze. I am in the best place in the world right now. I wonder how many other pilots may be doing the same thing at that moment, lying near their helicopter watching the night sky. For that is where our soul is, in the sky soaring free, it makes sense that we spend so much of our time on the ground looking into the air with a sense of longing and purpose. We belong there.
Satellites in orbit reflect the sunlight from the other side of the planet and twinkle red and green between the stars. The world gets darker around me, and as it does the stars multiply and get brighter, there is no light out here to interfere, not city lamps or interstates headlights, just darkness and the sky. The gentle breeze swirls around me as a lie there, with my hands behind my head. I can still make out the rotor blades outlined against the sky, and the straps holding the helicopter to the deck.
Truly remarkable, the best place in the world.