American Futures Takes Off

A road-trip-by-air gets its start.
Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg

Greetings from Holland, Michigan, where our long-announced American Futures project is making its debut.

That was the scene yesterday mid-afternoon at Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Maryland (KGAI in aviation-talk), as we waited for the ceiling to get high enough for a comfortable albeit on-instruments departure.

To the right of the scene above, you see members of The Atlantic's industry-leading video-production team, recording the beginning of the process. To their left, in black shorts and shirt, you see one half of The Atlantic's traveling team for this project. The other half of the team was getting some food out of the car. Behind the people is the Cirrus SR-22 airplane in which we'll make the journey.

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And as background to the entire scene is the disappointingly non-blue sky. We had originally planned to leave around noon but waited until 3:30pm for takeoff on the three-hour flight to Holland, Michigan (KBIV), where I am right now. I didn't want to leave until the ceiling was well above 1000 feet at Gaithersburg, and until we knew that weather conditions were improving on the other end.

Although flying is an integral part of this project -- because of the countless number of small towns that are most easily accessible via their small airports, and because of the patterns in the American landscape you can see most easily and vividly from a low-altitude vantage point -- our very deliberate goal is to make the actual flying as routine, uneventful, and non-adventurous as possible as we go from one place to the next.

The non-flying public imagines that small-plane pilots are oblivious to the statistical risks of flying. On the contrary. You think about it nonstop, or should. I'll save for later a more detailed description of how I think about risk and safety as regards this project. The practical implication for this first flight was that by the time we took off, above Gaithersburg there was a "scattered" cloud layer at 1,200 feet, and a "broken" layer at around 1,800 -- a comfortable situation, in that if for some reason you had to turn right around and land at the same airport you'd be able to do so in "visual" conditions. Three hours later, we broke out of the clouds on an ILS instrument-descent to Holland at around 2,200 feet, a very comfortable margin. At that point I could "cancel IFR" and just do an easy visual landing on a great big runway. Earlier in the day it would have been worse, with lower ceilings, and both ends, which is why we were happy to wait.

Updated maps and local reports shortly. Here is how the same plane and member of the reporting crew looked on the other end, on the ground in Holland, with all the gear we're traveling with for the next couple of weeks. (The skies directly over the Holland airport were almost clear.) Aviators will be glad to know that the plane -- with a full load of gas, two occupants, and the luggage shown here -- was still 80 pounds under the allowable takeoff weight.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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