I’m strapping myself in for a ride to the edge of the sky. Outside my porthole, the ground crew is preparing the vehicle for launch. The entry hatch is sealed, the mobile gantry pulled away. All systems are go. Soon, powerful thrusters will accelerate us to more than 500 miles per hour. At the peak of our trajectory, we will soar above about 80 percent of the atmosphere. The view of Earth will be panoramic.
Then the person behind me kicks my seat. Somewhere in the cabin a baby starts to cry. The college kid next to me slouches in her seat and flips through a magazine. Okay, so maybe a morning flight from JFK to Chicago isn’t all that glamorous. But think about it: At a time when people are lining up to pay $200,000 for suborbital rocket rides, I can soar to thirty or forty thousand feet for a fraction of the price—with beverages and pretzels thrown in for free. Now that’s a deal.
I didn’t use to care about looking out airplane windows. Like a lot of people, I stuck to aisle seats and spent most of my time wishing I were back on the ground. Then I took an introductory flying lesson and got hooked on small planes. Working toward my pilot’s license, I learned pilotage, the art of figuring out where you are by studying what you see on the ground. It’s surprisingly hard: things don’t always appear quite like you expect them to. But once you learn to understand the view from on high, the once-incomprehensible jumble becomes infused with meaning and, by extension, beauty. After learning how to interpret the landscape, flying wasn’t just transportation anymore. It was a real-life IMAX show.
The View from Above, in Seven Easy Steps
- Choose a window seat. And avoid sitting over the wing! When you’re making reservations online, keep a tab open to SeatGuru (seatguru.com), a website with charts on every type of aircraft operated by every major carrier, including details on wing location.
- Do a little research. The more you know, the more you’ll see. A superb reference is America from the Air by Daniel Mathews and James S. Jackson, which includes annotated aerial photos of topography across the United States and explanations of the predominant landforms. The book also comes with a CD-ROM of the major continental air routes.
- Plot your course. Type your route into Google Earth for a virtual flyover, and you’ll get a rough idea of what’s in store. The website fboweb.com generates Google Earth views of exact routes using up-to-the-minute FAA flight-tracking data. If you zoom in and tilt at the right angle, the view of the virtual globe looks just like what you’ll see out the airplane window.
- Pack your laptop. For the sake of knowing exactly what I’m looking at, I like to bring a computer with flight-planning software that electronically plots a route from origin to destination via the navigational beacons that airliners follow. One such program is Golden Eagle FlightPrep (flightprep.com).
- Look for landmarks. If a river is so big that its width is discernible from 30,000 feet, the chances are good that you’ve heard of it. Shorelines are easy to decipher. Flights between Berlin and Stockholm, for instance, pass over a large and very striking lagoon on the coast of the Baltic Sea. This is Szczecin Bay, at the mouth of the Oder River on the Polish-German border.
- Ask the captain. When you see something remarkable and can’t figure out what it is, flag down a flight attendant, who will probably go ask the captain, who will probably be thrilled to show off his or her geographical expertise (even if all it involves is checking the GPS system). One time I was flying north from Phoenix and noticed a gaping pit in the desert floor. A helpful flight attendant went up to the cockpit and came back with a positive ID: it was the famous Meteor Crater, formed by a cosmic impact 50,000 years ago.
- Watch the Clouds. You don’t just have to look down. Some of the most interesting sights are meteorological—on any flight of more than a few hours, you’re bound to witness at least one complete frontal system, and a range of cloud formations. To keep track of the vast menagerie of clouds, get a copy of The Cloudspotter’s Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, with extensive (and effusive) descriptions and photographs.
Jeff Wise is a T+L contributing editor.