America by Air: What a Former Flight Instructor Misses

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Over Ohio, from 2500 feet (James Fallows)

In response to a new pilot’s note about what he enjoyed in the aerial view, a reader who has worked as a flight instructor describes what he misses about that time in his life:

Thanks for your occasional odes to flying. I haven’t flown for years—for lack of $$, not for lack of desire. Some of the things I never tired of:

Flying west: over Ohio, an altitude of 3,500 was just beyond the ability to detect human forms on the ground below. And it fascinated me that if I held that altitude, I would crash somewhere just west of Colby, KS. [JF note: In case it’s not obvious, this is because the ground level goes steadily up as you head west. Between the Appalachians and the Atlantic, the ground level is generally less than 1000 feet above sea level. It’s the same through Ohio and Indiana and across the Mississippi River. But then it starts going up, and has reached 3,500 feet in Kansas. An airplane’s flight altitude is measured in elevation above sea level, not above the ground.]

Back in the day, when I was a flight instructor, I would ferry new aircraft from the factory in Wichita or OK City (remember the pre-Reagan days when general aviation was a thriving industry? I’ll never forgive him for what he did to that industry). And flying west, way off in the distance over the flat-as-a-cracker landscape that is KS and OK, the tips of the Rockies would slowly appear. I would always try to be alert for the very first clue that they were there, kind of like watching for the green flash at sunset over the ocean.

There’s also that sense of ownership and familiarity that you get flying over terrain. I never flew that much in the South or Southeast. But flying to or from the West Coast in the northern half of the country, I can generally look out of an airliner window and fairly reliably know the state we are flying over.

Then there’s the magic of IFR.Taking off, and shortly thereafter being absorbed by the clouds into a cocoon of whiteness, then breaking out on top into brilliant blue sky and sunshine. Something people in airliners rarely get to experience is flying being between layers. It’s a whole fantasy world of clear horizontal visibility with clouds above and clouds below; especially if there are cumulus upshoots, like building columns supporting the heavens. And then, being swallowed up in white until, magically, the runway appears. Is there anything more beautiful than the Christmas tree of a fully lit runway?  Something you never see from the back of an airliner.

I do miss it ...