O’ Dark Thirty, the Real Story


O’ Dark Thirty ( a common reference to night time operations by aviators and military types )

The night sky was filled with twinkling lights that stretched across our view looking out the cockpit windows of our Boeing 737.  My First Officer Jim and I were tasked with operating a “Red Eye” involving an all night flight, something I was well used to.

The cockpit lights were dimmed to allow our night vision to more easily pick out possible traffic conflicts, and for me the chance to see the Northern Lights dance across the northern horizon.  There seems to be a pattern, a pulsing of the northern lights that could almost be timed at about six minutes, from bright to dim, to bright again.   Along the southern horizon and along the ecliptic could be seen Jupiter, Saturn, and a myriad of star clusters.  Occasionally we’d spot opposite direction or crossing traffic, but my more immediate concern was that gaggle of eastbound aircraft with the same ETA for the same airport, Toronto International, now known as Pearson.

There are noise restrictions so as not to disturb the quality of life for Torontonians that do not allow aircraft to land prior to about 6 am.  To make this happen, that is the landing at the center of the known universe, other less important community airports allow middle of the night departures which likely can be heard by the folks nearby at those backwater cities such as Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, LA, Phoenix etc etc.  So, departures from those cities are planned to allow business to begin for the day at Toronto taking into account time zone differences to arrive at the end of the YYZ curfew.

I enjoyed those flights generally as there was camaraderie of spirit between those in other aircraft, the air traffic controllers, and of course onboard flight crew.  This particular evening’s work had us flying from Toronto Pearson leaving about 9pm, arriving about 11pm, ( four hour flight,  2 hour time difference ) and leaving Edmonton just after midnight local time arriving back at Toronto at 6am. The time of departure would be modified somewhat to insure crew restrictions at Toronto would be met and upper winds would heavily influence the actual departure from the gate.

Sometimes a short sleep in the back of the aircraft at the half way point of the work day , or should I say, night, could be worked into the routine.  I am pretty much a night owl, so usually I would opt to get the paperwork and complete the pre-flight prep if the F/O wanted a few extra winks.  This was the case on this evening, as Jim my F/O while on the ground in Edmonton advised me he would like it very much if I could give him just a little bit extra rest.  Apparently he had younger children at home, and he was not getting all the rest that he probably should have, in other words perhaps he had a sleep deficit.   No problem I was happy to oblige.

A few hours later while still over the Prairies and eastbound enroute back to our home base in Toronto our normal cruise routine had settled in.  Ongoing fuel calculations, groundspeed checks, weather checks, coffee and some conversation on varied subjects ensued.  At one point Jim suggested that I consider having twenty winks.  Truly I was feeling a bit sleepy, however a few more checks were in order.  I had misplaced my slide rule flight computer and it had settled into the deep recesses of my flight bag, in pilot talk, brain bag, which carried the company requisite manuals and an assortment of flight paraphernalia.  I leaned over to my left, looking ever deeper into my flight bag tucked in tightly beside the left seat and lodged against the sidewall.  Success!  I found my lost slide rule computer and retrieving it proudly announced to Jim that I had found what was once lost.

I was shocked as though I had just downed a triple espresso with the blood draining from my face as I realized that my co-pilot Jim had fallen asleep, while I was in search of my missing computer.  Just moments earlier he had suggested that I close my eyes and have a quick nap as he would monitor the aircraft’s progress in the night sky.  The terror of realizing that if had I in fact taken him up on his suggestion, there would be nobody awake at the controls of this airliner with well over a hundred and twenty souls on board.  This is the stuff that makes headlines in the morning papers, and that struck an inner nerve in me, to the point I felt like I might not sleep again for days!

The darkness does not always occur just in the night sky.  A deeper kind of darkness can exists, a terror, or fear, an uncertainty that can grip a soul in the light of day.  In some people it can be a one way street with no recovery and no hope.

………. I remember a time when that darkness crept over me.  I was walking with Art an art teacher and part time farmer along his country lane, not far from our home and we where we were discussing my aviation employment status, or lack of status.

Art, twenty years my senior had become not only a mentor, but had become my friend.  He was our church warden for a little Anglican church that we attended while living in Millet Alberta.  I was sharing with him my discontent about life.   I was furloughed from my airline job as a 737 first officer, with no hope of a descent aviation job anywhere on the horizon.

Things looked pretty bleak, actually downright depressing as I was now pumping gas at a local gas Co-Op with little prospect of things improving in any area of life.   With a new baby at home, a young wife who while working was not earning enough to keep us from losing our dream home in the country, I was terrified about our future.

Additionally, our recently acquired husky through Art’s son returned to his previous residence and helped run a horse through a fence when a kind neighbour unhitched our husky because he believed dogs  should be allowed to roam freely, just as in nature.   Under threat of lawsuit, we ended up paying vet bills and repair cost which we could ill afford at the time and putting the dog down.  I wondered aloud to Art if I had been in an accident, if the insurance would be enough to carry my young family through what seemed like the worst of times.  After I expressed that thought to Art, he immediately jumped on me for wishing my life away.  He was right of course.

This was the time of the National Energy Program, in which the corporate oil world gave up on Alberta.  Jobs were drying up faster than a shallow stream in a desert sun.  My job was gone already.  How could I have not seen the writing on the wall?  The politics of energy and resources; I was living the result.  Things were really dark amidst the Alberta sunshine.   I loved my house, my airline, my dog, my family, my friends, and it seemed as though I was about to lose everything.  I wondered about God, whether or not He even existed.  Art as a friend encouraged me and reminded me that it is always darkest just before the dawn.

But just as things seemed completely lost and hopeless, there developed a little crack in the darkness.  Keith, my old boss and friend called out of the blue and asked me if I had ever heard of the Turks and Caicos Islands.  Really I had not.  I had not heard from Keith for a while as his furlough at the airline preceded mine by a few months.

Keith asked if I would join him down south flying Tri-Islanders as a training pilot for this developing country’s national airline, TCNA, or TAC National as some called islanders called it.  He was Managing Director, and he did the hiring.  Not much money, but warm weather year around and a chance to work with an old friend, and keep up my flying skills.  I was told it would be years before the airline could ever expect to hire me back, if ever.  So maybe it would be worth a try, what was left to lose anyway?

Robin my wife and I raced to the library to find out what we could about the Turks and Caicos Islands.    This was well before the internet, and the encyclopedia stated “Barren and windswept” and as I was to find out, that was pretty accurate.  This was a time before there was any significant development, especially tourism that has since occurred on those islands.  Flying to about a dozen destinations throughout the Caribbean, including Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, and of course the Turks and Caicos Islands the national airline seemed like an option.

Things fell into place quickly, our house which had been on the market for an extended period like so many others in that neighbourhood, or more likely the province, was taken by the bank, all our worldly possessions that we were left with after the loss of our house were packed into twelve cardboard boxes.  My former airline Pacific Western agreed to transport ourselves and all those boxes free gratis on a plane bound for Puerto Plata in the D/R on a charter flight, free gratis.  TCNA my new airline arranged to pick us up in an Islander.  All this happened in just over a week from the phone call with Keith.

Our Millet neighbours, led by Art and his wife Dorothy threw us a farewell party and we were gone.  Through the years we lost contact with all those in our old neighbourhood except Art and his family.  Many of our neighbours lost their homes, and I guess that neighbourhood looked then a bit like Detroit does now.

I never expected to fly for that airline again.  It just didn’t seem possible.  But I was in fact recalled after almost two years of furlough.   I was re-assigned Calgary from Edmonton as my airline home base.  Years later of course I was transferred to Toronto where I had my first jet airliner captaincy on the Boeing 737…… whereupon I flew those long missions through the night.

…….Streaking across the night sky with Jim sleeping I rang the Flight Attendant call button and requested a coffee, “Cream and sugar please”.   I let Jim sleep for a few more minutes, as there was no danger of me falling asleep with my heart still racing and realizing how things could have turned out differently.  I chatted for a few minutes with the senior flight attendant, and then woke Jim up, much to his surprise.

As we neared Toronto the air traffic controllers ( ATC ) were getting busier.  They were asking for indicated airspeeds and ETAs.  Finally some aircraft were asked to slow while we were asked to bump up our speed a bit as we were now number one for landing in Toronto that morning.  Perfect!  The rest of the trip enjoyable and we could now see the eastern sky brightening as the Sun was on the verge of cresting the horizon once again.

Curfew was over at 0600 and we touched down at 0601, tight against the clock.  A pre-curfew landing could result in a five thousand dollar fine to the captain.  Needless to say that did not happen to me this morning, or ever!

The next challenge; to drive home and not fall asleep!  I had a long drive back home to Mount Forest where I lived at the time, on a small farm in the country. I looked forward to some much needed sleep.  The kids were off to school I would get some rest before doing it again later that evening.  For a period of time, that was a regular way of life for me.  Night flying for me was always a joy but did yield some “bumps in the night”.

And although it is always seems darkest before the dawn, dawn seems to always come.  I know that now.  Aviation life and life in general has been and will always be unpredictable.  There will always be dark times, but living in those times make the sunshine seem so much brighter when it comes.  Now, the thought is, there is a God, and there always was.

Click the link to hear the original song….  Words and music…   Dave Metcalfe

05 Lost and Alone

Lost and Alone



I am lost, alone, and in the cold,

And sit under grey skies alone

No one to hear to bare my soul to,

I am lost, alone, and in the cold,


Tears that run down my cheeks so cold

No one can comfort  none to hold

Here again as I am growing so old

I am lost, alone, and in the cold,


Is there anyone here whom with I share my pain

Anyway that I can love again

Is there anyone here whom with I share the blame

I am lost, alone, and in the cold,


I,ve tried my best and did not see,

Any body there for loving me

Have I looked for a hand heavenly?

I am lost, alone, and in the cold,

Any hope for me?

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