Ruminations on high altitiude star sights

"Nandi, Nandi; this is Navy 48319; AIREP, over." The alliterative sing-song radio call rolled easily off my tongue.


Then: "Navy 48319, this is Nandi Radio. Go ahead with your position report," the clipped, slightly nasal, and decidedly "foreign" but indefinable accent crackled back. It always sounded like the same voice, and I wondered briefly who taught English to radio controllers on Fiji.

I read our position reporta string of numbers revealing to the initiated that at about 0230 local time we were in a U.S. Navy LC-130 Hercules transport, 300 miles south of the equator, headed toward Samoa while flying 4 miles above the ocean, experiencing smooth air and a light breeze from the east.

"Roger, Navy 48319. Nandi out."

I turned down the radio to get rid of some of the incessant South Pacific short-wave static. It was unlikely that we would talk to the outside world for another hour. Quickly I precalculated my next star sights so I’d be ready to get a fix just before the next position report was due; then I turned off the light at my navigation table. I had regretted having to disturb the other flight crewmembers by turning on my light at all, and had kept it so dim that it had been a strain to read the numbers in the sight-reduction tables. There was an almost audible sense of relief in the cockpit as I finished my duties and moved to stand behind the co-pilot, there to watch the tropic night slip past us. Now only the muted, uniform red glow of the instrument lights illuminated the cockpitneat rows and columns of engine instruments, assorted flight instruments, fuel gauges, and radio dials, softly displaying their messages.

At a time like this, on a flight like this, no one spoke in the cockpit. Gone were the question-and-answer drills about emergency procedures and engine operation. Gone were the bantering jibes about the co-pilot’s love life. Each of us had taken up with his own thoughts and speculations. Back in the cargo compartment, our few passengers and off-duty crewmembers slept, hoping no doubt for a fast and uneventful passage. In the cockpit, however, we might have wished that the flight would go on forever, for beyond the large windows through which we all gazed was a realm of seeming unreality, a view that few ever see. The night was clear, the air was smooth, and no one had ever seen so many stars.

Here we were, apparently drifting above the Pacific, with only the steady, muffled, and now forgotten drone of the engines to remind us of how we happened to be here. The tiny fingernail moon had set hours before, yet the scattered puffy clouds far below were an almost luminescent white, the ocean miles down sparkled incessantly, and there were faint shadows of the window frames in the cockpitall from the incredible starlight. Countless thousands of twinkling lights were so thickly spread that for a moment you couldn’t imagine a place for even one more. And yet, there were more, from all points of the horizon, climbing to the zenith of the celestial sphere, an array of fire-lighted jewels filling a depthless void.

I tried first to drink it in, to saturate myself with the magnificence of it, to store it away for future reference and inspiration. Then, as a navigator, I tried to analyze it, to find all the standard navigational stars of the Southern Hemisphere: Rigel Kentaurus, Canopus, Acrux, Shaula, Zubenelgenubi. But in the midst of tracing out a constellation I would suddenly discover myself simply gazing, awestruck, at an amorphous cluster of nameless stars, unable to make sense of anything. And it struck me that it’s no wonder that men of ancient civilizations found gods in the heavens back in the days before air pollution and city lights obliterated the night sky, when any cloudless night might look like this night, exposing numberless, inexplicable, unreachable stars. But no ancient man ever had the advantage of creating his mythology from 24,000 feet above a boundless sea.

I started searching out the constellations again, trying to visualize the figures in the sky as I had often tried to do in the past with little success. But to my surprise, I found them this timenot irregular polygons like those on the star charts, but full-bodied people and animals. There was the mighty Centaur, his forefoot the brilliant Rigel Kentaurus, now rising in the southeast. And above him, the fearsome Scorpius, with the red eye of Antares, and Shaula for a sting at the tip of the arched tail. He was the slayer of Orion, who sets as Scorpius rises. Directly overhead was Gienah, star in the constellation Corvus, the crow, sacred bird of Phoebus Apollo. Under the belly of the Centaur was Crux, the Southern Cross. Though sometimes a disappointment to those seeing it for the first time because it’s smaller than one might expect, that night it made up in brilliance what it lacks in size. There behind Centaurus was the false cross in Vela, larger but not as bright as the true Southern Cross, with Suhail at its northern point. And fleshing out these figures and making dozens more were the legions of cold white suns whose light had started towards us eons ago and was just now arrivinga million twinkling messages to remind us of our tiny stature in the celestial scales of time and distance.

Perhaps I should have felt small, insignificant after contemplating the vastness of the heavens; but in reality I felt more invigorated spiritually than ever, more in touch with the forces of the universe. It amazed me that the same processes of nature that could be coldly analyzed and explained by astrophysicists, reduced and encoded by mathematicians, and catalogued and inspected by astronomers could also produce such an undeniable display of simple visual beauty, a display equally accessible to the most primitive and the most sophisticated people. It was true that on a physical scale the vast array before me was overpowering, but I was heartened by the realization that my mind was not overwhelmed, that I could comprehend and appreciate both the scientific and artistic beauty of the stars, could use them to guide us over the surface of our speck of dust in the cosmos and still marvel attheirbeautyasIdidit.Indeed, it was time to use a few stars out of the millions to determine our position. I resented having to work now, having to give up, temporarily, my spot by the co-pilot’s windows, having to rein in my consciousness.

But I knew that this star shot was different from the routine. This time, as I cranked the numbers into the sextant, I was deeply aware of kinship with the ancient Persians, Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Polynesianswith all the seafarers of the past who had seen and used these very stars, these four out of the countless thousands visible to the naked eye, to guide them to a safe port.

Almost eagerly I peered through the periscopic sextant, looking first low in the northerly sky behind us for Vega, the brilliant corner of Lyra, the lyre of Orpheus, musician to the Argonauts. There was no doubt of its identity as it floated delicately into the gently glowing bubble in the depths of the instrument. For two minutes Vega hovered in the bubble while I watched, fascinated. Then, noting the average altitude recorded by the machine, I re-aimed, this time at Rigel Kentaurus, almost due south. Briefly I wondered whether it was Hadar or Rigel Kent I was looking at, but there was no real question. Two more minutes drifted by. Next came Regulus, brightest point in Leo, the lion slain by Hercules. The sextant eyepiece could have been a jeweler’s loupe focused on a fortune in diamonds strewn on blue-black velvet. The air was perfectly smooth, and Regulus passed its allotted time quietly in the sextant bubble. Three stars are enough for a good fix, but the night was so perfect, the stars so enticing. Antares gleamed bright and red as the head of Scorpio filled the sextant’s field of view. A final two-minute close observation and a few quick moments spent plotting the lines of position resulted in a near intersection of four lines on the chart. The stars had given me a nearly perfect fix of position.

It was time now to fill in all the numbers on the position report form. It seemed a shame, really, to reduce all the splendor of the star shots to a few symbols on a piece of paper. I should have called those well-tutored Fijians waiting for my radio report and said, "Hey, you guys! We’re over here where Vega and Antares cross with Rigel Kent and Regulus, headed right for Samoa, under the most beautiful night sky ever. Over here where the ocean is sparkling like crazy way below, like a zillion shards of a broken mirror. We’re doing fine, just like we planned. I’ve got to go stand behind the co-pilot again and watch the show some more, so I’ll talk to ya later"

That’s what I should have said. Instead, I just said, "Nandi, Nandi; this is Navy 48319; AIREP, over"

Robert A. Nyden is a former U.S. Navy navigator who flew aboard LC-130s in the early 1970s. He now lives in Palo Alto, Calif.

By Ocean Navigator