Editor’s Note: The events described here did not take place in Pensacola, FL; the setting and related details have been changed to protect the identity of the author.
I saw for the first time tonight the outline of a drone over Pensacola, my part of the city. And if you think I’m crazy, well, I hope you are right.
In the past and mostly in the country, I followed the lights up above, as I have always been far more interested in aircraft in the night sky than the seemingly static and painfully unreachable stars and planets.
The blinking lights, nose and tail, trajectories and turns. Color codes and headings. A feeling that something’s there long before it is realized.
For I am the nephew of an accomplished commercial pilot, the son of a command-level cop, both of whom served in the U.S. Navy Air Corps and grew up by the Pensacola International Airport, which used to serve fighter and C-130 training wings. Facing the airport, either right off the runway at grandpa’s or in my driveway 5 miles NE, I watched the touch-and-go’s of the transports nearly every night as a kid, thrilled by the sight of the occasional F-4 Phantom loping in for some reason or another.
This and a career in crime reporting—also being arrested twice—prepared me for today. And by prepared I merely mean the propensity to look up and be paranoid. But the sounds, the noises, they all blend into the din if you are not paying attention; or if you have a job, somewhere to be, or have to go to bed early.
Some whir like the dull-white noise of a grain dryer—or an aging central air unit—that one can never seem to get away from, or closer to. Others sound like a high-flying jet, a sound that all too often accompanied my late-night walks in rural Escambia County for months.
I later heard identical sounds, uploaded by others to the Internet … and that it is perhaps the other way around: high-flying jets sound a lot like drones, except with drones, the sound comes in bursts, as the engines adjust not with raw thrust as a jetliner, but in bursts to hold position over a target, compensating for wind and other variables that are key to stationary operations.
This one, though, was different.
To the naked eye one can ascertain the movement of what appear to be distant stars or planets. The drones blend into this cosmic cityscape, but upon close examination can be observed emerging from moving clouds, hovering, gaining speed and altitude, but mostly, unnervingly, hovering.
This causes confusion to the casual observer. One might discern the movement of the questionable target and even that it is not a star or planet. But he or she would likely conclude, as I had initially, the existence of a satellite. Yet satellites move orbitally and rather quickly.
With regard to drones, under a steady hand holding a decent pair of field glasses, everything is illuminated. It had three lights in back, one on the nose and a discernible shadow in-between. It lingered. It sped up. And those lights, which are separated and distinct and continuous under glasses, appear to the naked eye a flicker from a distant galaxy, or at least, a jet cruising at alt.
It’s as if you were looking at a car that appears to be moving slowly, miles away on a faraway ridge and then, when using a looking device, discover it is merely coming around a curve a half mile away. Thus, the night and light are all around us. And they are moving. Just like this one—with a discernible tail. And wings.
I keep thinking that they are a logical option in an era in which rising despair and crime, combined with deep cuts to public services like law enforcement, have made the world a wholly unsafe place. That they—whatever they may be—are not watching me but everyone, perhaps dozens, or even hundreds of “targets,” so what’s to worry?
Yet when I get under a tree or awning, the lights move, and there we stand, peering out at each other through high-powered lenses. We hold this position and no one knows what to say—until it is time again to move, in relative silence. There is only the unknown between us, and a forced trust that comes with surrendering all to a new order of things.
Tallulah rarely admits to seeing these craft; or the others on the ground entrusted with our safety.
But she will never forget the night we saw such a “drone”—and we’ll call it that not out of certainty, but for lack of a clearer term—hovering before us as we drove home late on US 98. Looking like a blinking star with a shadow and movement, it stopped dead in our windshield and from its center dropped a light like a thin fishing line, which produced at the end—another light, which appeared to drop all the way to the ground and disappear.