America by Air: Sutro Monster Emerges From the Fog

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Tom James

This photo from reader Brian Neil doesn’t have a part of the aircraft in the frame but it makes the view all the more surreal. Here’s Brian with details and a bonus pic:

My friend Tom took this photo during a flight over San Francisco while I piloted a Cessna 172. The fog in SF has always been one of its most interesting features, and I love days when it partially covers the city. Sutro Tower gets to lord over the fog all the time, but it’s not common for it to reach downtown like this:

Jessica Placzek at KQED, a public radio station in San Francisco, profiled the Sutro Tower last summer:

Back in the 1960s, San Francisco had really bad television reception. By many accounts, it was the worst of any city in America. Good reception required a clear line of sight from the broadcast tower to your TV antenna, and in hilly San Francisco this was a challenge. Broadcasters began the hunt for a location to build a very tall tower that could send a clear TV signal far and wide. [...]

Eric Dausman, general manager of Sutro Tower, says the architect’s decision to taper the center was entirely aesthetic. “All the engineers since then want to shoot him. It made it a more difficult structure to maintain, and it is a more difficult structure to keep perfectly upright and in a great condition,” says Dausman.

The other major change was the color. Original plans showed a tower with a golden hue, but aviation regulations required the tower be painted alternating stripes of red and white to ward off possible plane collisions.

Money quote from the tower’s Wiki page:

San Francisco writer Herb Caen once wrote, “I keep waiting for it to stalk down the hill and attack the Golden Gate Bridge.” Acknowledging both displeasure and affection for its undeniable prominence on the city's skyline, it is sometimes referred to light-heartedly as the Sutro Monster or Space Claw.

For some aerial views from the tower, check out this great video from KQED narrated by Placzek:

Update from a reader who lived in San Francisco for a while:

This isn’t a submission because it’s a photo from the ground not the air, but since I’m a Sutro appreciator, I am sharing a photo of the Sutro Monster I took that I really like:

Sutro seems to be using the fog to sneak up on an unsuspecting city. Attached. Sutro Tower even has a fan site, run by a Floridian. I sent in that photo years ago and it is now one of the many used on the page.