February 20, 2010 8:51:00 PM
Flying in a military jet across far northern Canada one night, I encountered as brilliant a display of northern lights, or the aurora borealis, as I had ever seen that provoked both scientific and spiritual thoughts.
As usual, the aurora snuck up on me slowly. At first I thought it merely a line of diffuse clouds and paid little attention. But then it slowly began to coalesce into a long ribbon of light and to dance, or sway, as a window curtain might if blown gently by a breeze, but in very slow motion.
It also began to take on color as it formed with subtle violet, green and red hues, towering columns of undulating color forming a celestial curtain that seemed to rise to heaven. I thought, somehow, a soaring female aria should be sung as background for this apparition dancing before me.
I called the crew forward to view the spectacle. They came up, one or two at a time, to gaze at this ghostly, otherworldly phenomenon. Most of them stared, transfixed, for a few minutes and then returned to the back in reflective silence.
The solar wind creates the aurora as it blows across the earth''s magnetic field and energizes oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the ionosphere starting 50 miles above the earth. Photons of light are emitted as the atoms return to a normal state as the wind passes by and creates artificially visible strands of the invisible magnetic field.
These northern lights are most pronounced near the magnetic north pole in far northeastern Canada, which is precisely where we were located at the time, flying from Iceland to South Dakota.
The auroras can be seen at night in far northern and southern latitudes but usually appear on the horizon to earthbound observers. From our view at 35,000 feet, however, the aurora soared above us spectacularly.
That is the scientific explanation for what I was seeing, of course, but the science cannot explain the spiritual awe the aurora can summon.
Norse mythology saw the aurora as a bridge for gods to travel to and from Earth. Eskimos thought it to be lanterns carried by spirits searching for dead hunters. Due to its often-twisting shape, it entered the folklore of many peoples as a dragon and, as a consequence, seems to be why dragons fly.
This particular aurora borealis brought deep wonder to me as well, flying high above the Arctic. I could almost sense these long, colorful, ribbons of glowing light as the flowing robes of God as He passed before us.
Jay Lacklen is a retired Air Force Reserve pilot, who flew missions in Vietnam and Iraq. Presently he is simulator instructor at CAFB and is writing a book about his experiences in the Air Force.