In World War I, the fighters went out at dawn. In short order, the fighter pilots and maintenance crews began referring to this early morning mission as “The Dawn Patrol.” The pilots would rise early, breakfast, and then go out hunting the enemy. Fifty or 60 years later, “the boys” and I gave new meaning to the term, The Dawn Patrol.
While my friends, the boys, and I renewed the phrase, The Dawn Patrol, in our late teens and early twenties, our Dawn Patrols had little to do with the rising of the sun. It usually meant we got our butts out of the rack and going about the break of noon…, or maybe near 1300 hours (1 pm for the non-flying and civilian readers). While flying at dawn has somewhat romantic connotations, for us to get going in the morning was nothing less than a chore.
A Dawn Patrol flight, however, a true Dawn Patrol, is a perfectly wonderful experiene. The only negative with The Dawn Patrol mission is waking before the sunrise. Beyond that, however, the experience is one of the finest in aviation.
It does not matter the time of year a pilot flies a Dawn Patrol. It can be the summer, the winter, or the fall or spring. Each season has its advantages and disadvantages; in the fall and winter, the air is cool, bordering on cold and in the summer and spring, the atmosphere is delightfully moist. This provides surreal scenes involving wisps of fog and propellers squeezing out the dampness of the air as it tries to drag the airplane into the sky. This leaves behind an artful visible spiral from the tips of the props.
Once in the air, the airplane flies through air that is so smooth it defies description. There is not a bump of turbulence, there is no wind. The sky is dark to the west, light to the east. If it is early enough and there are few clouds, the pilot might be able to see the last of the stars as they disappear in the heavens.
Because the air is so stable, the airplane does the bidding of the pilot with little resistance or complaint. For a pilot to enjoy pure flying, there is no better moment than this; for the student pilot who learns to fly only in this time, well, let’s just say they learn little in dealing with wind or real weather. Students must accomplish some of their flying lessons during times of wind and poor weather, otherwise, they will not learn the lessons of flying well.
Flying is easy in these conditions, especially with the modern airplanes of today. Because of the inherent stability designed into the airplane, a pilot can fly The Dawn Patrol with barely a touch of the stick or yoke. Once the airplane is trimmed, it will stay in that attitude doing exactly what the pilot has commanded. In fact, a pilot can trim the plane right after takeoff, then in level flight, and finally on final approach to landing – and not touch the flight controls from moments after takeoff to a few seconds before landing. Just a little nudge on the rudder pedals to turn and position the airplane properly on heading is all that is required.
While the military pilots of World War I had fighters that barely reached 120 mph and altitudes of less than 15,000, today’s fighter pilots have the chance to blast through a dawn flight at 1500 mph and up to altitudes higher than 50,000. Today’s jet pilots can launch into the sky in the dark, quickly climb up to FL 500, and then watch the sunrise for the first time of the day. After the sun comes up, they can close their power levers and dive down to FL 400. In the dive, they can watch the sunset to the east and after they level off, they can enjoy the sunrise again. They can repeat this procedure to watch the sunrise five times in one day, the last as they are taxiing to the hardstand after landing.
I miss seeing the sunrise several times in a day, but I still enjoy flying the occasional dawn patrol in little airplanes. The difference between Dawn Patrols in jets and little airplanes is that in the little airplane, a pilot can truly enjoy the lay of the land. At altitude in a jet, the land lacks definition. Down low, the little airplane pilot can see things a jet pilot will never see.
Today, I like taking my time and viewing what the land has to offer at very low airspeeds and altitude. I still believe The Dawn Patrol is the best time to fly. However, getting up that early can sometimes challenge most pilots.
As much as I enjoy those early-morning flights, thank goodness I don’t have to fly The Dawn patrol every day.
©2012 J. Clark
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