There are few moments in my life where I can remember every detail of them. Every second, every sensation. Where I can replay the memory like a record in my mind. My last training flight in the SR-71 is one of those.
We had just finished our training mission and were heading back to base at Edwards. The sortie was easy enough and my pilot and I were silently congratulating ourselves that after this we would no longer be trainees in the Blackbird.
It was a late mission, looking at my watch I could see the hands just touching 2325. Most of the other aircraft had already been grounded and the tower was down to a skeleton crew, so the radio was silent from chatter that night. Even my pilot and I weren’t talking. It just felt like one of those moments after a party when you and your friends sit in the living room and quietly stare at the ceiling as the music plays. Just that sort of mutual understanding of silence.
The only sound I could hear came from the engines to our back outside. Those engines could always calm me down like a lullaby. Such a low and murmuring hum, like a constant series of waves breaking on the ocean.
Being the reconnaissance systems officer, I had the easy job at that point. Among many things I was in charge of navigation, but my pilot knew the southern Californian sky like the back of his hand. He always had an amazing sense of direction. Because of that, I got to take it easy on the journey back.
The sun had already gone down for California, but at 73,000 feet we could still see it disappearing over the far western horizon. The cabin was filled with a soft darkness that matched the beautifully dark paint of the aircraft. Lights coming off the equipment and controls were the only things illuminated in the cockpit, creating a mixture of black with soft glows of red and green that reflected off my orange flight suit.
I looked to my left and gazed out at the growing landscape which seeped into a deeper night as you moved closer to the eastern horizon. I could still see the tips of mountain tops and outlines of rivers, running like veins through the earth. The lights from the cities and little towns dotted and connected the landscape like urban campfires.
My gaze drifted up into what is still to this day one of the most beautiful sights I will ever see. When they say staring off into eternity, I assume this is what they mean. Words can’t describe what I saw. I looked past my reflection in the left-side glass, staring through the black visor looking back at me, and saw the purest lights, millions of them, made of perfect white dotting the immense blackness. Too many stars to ever count stretching into forever. And a single long line of purple and brown of the Milky Way creating a cloudy whisper through it all.
There will always be something about that moment that will stay with me forever. The peace. The calm. The solitude. I just felt completely separate from the world in a way I have never felt before. There was something surreal about truly being alone out at the ends of the Earth. All the problems, the pains, the troubles… they all just kind of faded away into a moment of absolute beauty.
I rested my helmet on the head rest and began running through my controls, checking gauges and flight data as we raced across the southern California sky. We had about 10 minutes of flight time left before we had to return to Earth. It was then that I thought no matter where I went for the rest of life, whatever city or temple or natural wonder I ventured to, nothing will ever compare to that moment 14 miles above the Earth, out there on the edge of the world.