Sunday, October 2, 2016

A light in the night

If you ever navigated air or sea after dark, you have an appreciation for lights spinning in the night. They are called “rotating beacons” at airports and along the coast they are called lighthouses. I call them “the way home,” because they point the way there. Because of this, beacons in the night have a place close to my heart.

In this modern age, most air and sea navigation is done in a virtual universe crated by radio signals. But at some point most navigators must make the transition from the screens and dials to the real world outside the craft. True, there are “automatic landing systems” in some airplanes but they are rare indeed. I may be a curmudgeon, but I am not quite ready to trust my life to a circuit board yet.

Besides, there is nothing to be compared to recognizing that blip of light that tells you that you have found home amongst that myriad of lights along the shoreline or on the land below you. At that magic moment, you make the transition from virtual to real. There is always a feeling of relief, because no matter how good a pilot (air or sea) you are, you cannot land in the virtual world.

Some of my beacons flash white only denoting lighthouses while others flash white and green alternately denoting airports. There are other combinations around but these are the most common. One of the first that I remember seeing flashed white, white and green, denoting a military airport. That was at NAS Jacksonville, just a few miles from my home. When it was cloudy, I could sit on my front porch and watch the beams reflect off the clouds overhead. Often, when riding in the family car coming back in the twilight after a daytrip to the lakes or the beaches, I would see the flash of light that meant that I was within a few miles of home. That always brought a smile to my lips.

There were two trips in my life where I was glad to see the rotating beacons. The first was a mid winter trip to Florida for my uncle’s funeral. My aunt asked me to fly one of her friends back to Atlanta since it was on my way. I chuckle a bit because if you ever look at a map, Atlanta is not “on the way” to Columbia from Jacksonville. It was late, just after 11 PM when I climbed out eastward from Peachtree DeKalb airport. It was a crystal clear night and at 9,000 feet I could see the entire state of South Carolina in front of me as I approached the Savannah River which forms the state line between SC and GA.

I was flying on an instrument flight plan primarily to help navigate the busy Atlanta airspace under positive control. A few minutes earlier, I had flown directly over the Hartsfield – Jackson airport and was amazed to see the airliners strung out like pearls of light on threads of airways tacked down on one end at the runway thresholds. But now all that was behind my tail. There was this beautiful carpet of lights as far as I could see. The outside air was below 20 degrees so it was smooth and I could enjoy the view. As I approached the state line, because it was so clear, Jacksonville Center handed me off to Columbia Approach Control instead of Washington Center. My friends in the approach control room asked me if I could see the Columbia Airport beacon. Mind you, I was still over Georgia but sure enough, there was a flash of white light ahead. I kept my eyes on the spot and a few seconds later there was a flash of green. To be sure that I was looking at the correct beacon, there were probably about 20 or more that would have visible from my location, I asked him to “hit the rabbit” for a moment. Now, don’t worry, no furry bunnies were being mistreated, the rabbit is a double row of lights that flash in sequence, pointing the way to the end of the runway. Sure enough, I saw the rabbit and was given clearance for a straight in approach to runway 11. I was still 75 miles from the airport and I would not see the runway lights themselves for another 20 minutes. There is always a sense of relief when you see home.

My lighthouse story is from an open ocean voyage I took with some friends as they were sailing down to the Caribbean from Annapolis in their 44 foot sloop. We left Hilton Head around noon on a Saturday and headed out a few miles offshore, far enough to be out of sight of land. We could pick up the signal from the outer marker at the St. Augustine, FL harbor and it was right in the best place for sailing into the prevailing winds which held true for that entire trip. As sunset approached we could just begin to see some lights to our west. The first lighthouse we spotted in the moonlight was the Tybee Island Light on its perch next to the Savannah River. As shooting stars flitted across the sky, we took compass bearings on the Sapelo, St. Simons and Cumberland Lighthouses and marked our progress with hatch marks down the radio beacon path we had marked on the chart. Just before dawn we passed St Mary’s into the Florida coastal waters. Those lighthouses, while not showing us the way home, chronicled our progress in the real world as well as the virtual one in which we were making our way.

One of my favorite lighthouses is the Morris Island Light on the southern edge of the entrance to Charleston Harbor. When constructed in 1876 it stood about 1,200 feet from the water's edge. However, in 1889 the construction of the jetties altered ocean currents, resulting in the rapid erosion of Morris Island and the destruction of many structures and historical sites. Morris Island Light now stands several hundred feet offshore. But last night something magical happened. The Morris Island Lighthouse was re-lit for the first time in over a decade on what was also the 140th anniversary of its first beacon. Crews from SCE&G outfitted the top of the tower with LED panels to simulate the cupola that has long been out of use. The ceremony was part of a continuing fundraising effort by Save the Light, a group that is trying to restore the lighthouse to what it once was. That makes me smile! Oh MY!

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