A flash of light

Today, I have just now discovered, is Sudden Insight Day, which is kind of an odd holiday; what, are we supposed to provoke a sudden insight somehow? If it was that easy, we’d have a lot more scientific discoveries each November. So for my own part, I’m going to relate a recent insight that occurred to me, and we’ll consider that appropriate.

The flight up to Ohio last month was at night, and I settled into my window seat to enjoy the view, which was almost completely clear for the entire trip. I am a bit of a flying enthusiast, not getting anywhere near the opportunities that I’d like, so instead of playing on my phone or sleeping or thumbing through a catalog of overpriced and useless items, I’m generally looking out the window. The significant difference to the routine, this trip, was having a smutphone; I did not possess one the last time I flew. This addition allowed me to do some GPS tracking while in flight, even though I could not get a connection to any mapping service for complete plotting.

Looking down on rural West Virginia at one point, I caught a flash of light out of the corner of my eye, back behind and to the right of our aircraft. We were flying at better than 25,000 feet, so details on the ground tend to be broader rather than the fine details of cars or even parking lots, and this was a distinctive bright flash, growing and then receding in brightness quickly. I looked, but it did not repeat, making me more than a little curious. The effect was similar to a rotating beacon, reaching peak brightness as it faces directly towards you before diminishing rapidly again, and I’ve spotted plenty of airport beacons in this manner, but not at such an altitude and not without easily seeing the pattern. I might have put it down to an electrical storm, but I was seeing far too many ground details to believe there was even a small thunderhead in the area. After a few moments I looked away.

Perhaps fifteen seconds later, it came again, not quite as bright, and then as I zeroed in on it I saw it again, this time fully focused, yet no closer to knowing what it was – just that it was inordinately bright. Again, I could see the glows of nearby towns, so one light source would have to be overwhelming for it to appear that way. And all of a sudden, I had it.

It was the night of a full moon, which was just out of sight beyond the top of the plane window in that direction, and what I was seeing were the reflections of the moon itself on bodies of water, as the plane quickly passed through the narrow path of them. No sooner did I realize this than it became readily apparent, as we passed over a winding river that made the reflection trace a serpentine path along a stretch for a few seconds. Still freaky looking, but entirely recognizable once I knew what I was looking at. Not long after that, a lake gave me an unobstructed and undistorted view of the entire moon for a second.

Looking at the map just now, I might have been seeing reflections off of the meandering Little Kanawha River; I’m fairly certain I was looking at Parkersburg, West Virginia not long afterward, on a recognizable sharp bend in the Ohio River, and was wondering what one largish light source was. If I have the town correct, it was probably the well-lit parking lot of the medical center there. Next time, I’ll preload some maps into the phone.

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