Sweet Tart Time Warp: The Three Hour Sunset

You point the nose west and settle into cruise and it finally hits you: this sunset doesn’t want to end. That’s the moment when the past catches up with the present and lets you in on a little secret about the future. That is, time depends on where you’re going. Long? Short? Brief? Interminable? It’s all a question of direction.

As a kid in fourth grade I had pretty much worked out the science of this revolutionary discovery using my newly acquired mathematical tools like long division and multiplication, scratching calculations on three ring binder paper while downing Sweet Tarts for brain fuel and watching Dick Van Dyke Show reruns. According to my calculations, if I flew west to east at just the right speed, given the turning of the earth below and my jet’s speed, time would stand still because I’d be over the exact same spot. Kind of a grade school version of the geosynchronous orbit.

Fast forward to my adulthood and the opportunity to examine that theory from my present job site at thirty-plus thousand feet and .77 Mach.

One thing I hadn’t accounted for in my grade school theorizing was the fact that as an airline pilot and an adult, I’d be lazy enough (and senior enough) to not fly early in the morning. So I’d be flying mostly east to west, joining the tide of blinking strobes creasing the sky late in the day, sailing to the coast. And in that physical reality, I find that I was halfway right: the sunset goes on forever as we chase the sun west.

But in the most part–damn the math and Sweet Tarts–I was just plain old wrong. No geosynchronous orbit. Not time standing still. But the important lesson: time depends on where you’re going. That’s a matter of proportion and substance, not speed and duration. Here’s why.

This sunset was observed at sea level. Actually, nine decks up from sea level and it should be noted, on a cruise ship with a camera and a vodka tonic in hand rather than Sweet Tarts and a number two pencil. Two other factors are fundamentally different as well.

The ship was cruising at a leisurely twenty knots, rather than my work-related obligatory four hundred plus knot cruise speed. And in the second clause is the most significant distinction: work. At altitude, I’m at work. At sea level–especially at sea–I’m not.

That seaside sunset lasted about two minutes. The week long cruise in retrospect seems now more like a matter of a day or two. But the months leading up to the cruise–and especially the maintenance-delayed flight to the port city–seemed like forever.

By contrast, once the jet’s landing gear is tucked into the gear wells, time slows to a creep. There’s the inverse relationship: at high speed and high altitude, time drags slower than Christmas.

By contrast, sea level–“sea” being a key word, particularly on a beach or a cruise ship–when not at work flies by like a lightning bolt, a brilliant flash disappearing in a squiggly swirl of smoke and landing somewhere far away. The thunder lingers, like the stack of vacation pictures, but predictably fades with time till you can only barely remember the original brilliance.

Same way with parenthood, and families and important events and people. Gone in a flash, yet the times in between seem to drag on. Not that there aren’t dazzling views on the way, incidental in only the fact that they’re unanticipated, but breathtaking nonetheless.

And it would be shortsighted to discount all the friends and family and events waiting ahead in unanticipated places and times of equally rewarding experiences encountered along the way to the next “big event.”

Maybe the real secret is this: the whole journey is the big deal; the events just the waypoints along the way. Maybe it never was about a geosynchronous life, hovering over a here and now. Maybe in the interminable sunset between events–the time warp–there’s also a meaningful now that sets into relief the precious moments of past and present.

So maybe there’s no time warp after all, and fourth grade math and youthful perspective not withstanding, no need for it either. The real deal is in the journey and whether at five hundred miles and hour or ten, sea level or flight level, you’re speeding onward nonetheless.

Hard as it is to admit, the times in between the momentous events are the majority of the journey, rather than the sideshow. Never mind long division–I always suspected it would lead to no good–and I’ll take the Vodka tonic over the Sweet tarts nowadays. But from the time from of fourth grade to forty-plus, one thing is clear: time, distance, place and people go by too quickly when you don’t want them to.

I think I’ll spend a little more time concentrating on the ride. Long or short, there are only so many sunsets to go.


2 Responses to “Sweet Tart Time Warp: The Three Hour Sunset”

  1. Daniel Says:

    Having flown a lot, it is really interesting to see the whole experience from another angle, especially since that angle is usually behind a locked door 25 rows in front of me. I also read all the posts down to the application post with lots of pretty pictures. You have managed to cull some fantastic stories from flying!

  2. mike witter Says:


    Mike Witter ’78

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