Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

America by Air
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Inspired by our March 2016 cover story by James Fallows,How America Is Putting Itself Back Together,” readers share their best aerial photos from across the U.S. Submit your own via hello@theatlantic.com. (Please provide the location, the story behind the photo, and the largest file size you have. Horizontal photos with a bit of the plane visible—a wing, the edge of a window—are ideal. Terms and Conditions here.)

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Steven Heiss

It was a city built on gold:

The Denver area, part of the Territory of Kansas, was sparsely settled until the late 1850s. In July 1858, Green Russell and Sam Bates found a small placer deposit near the mouth of Little Dry Creek (in the present-day suburb of Englewood) that yielded about 20 troy ounces (620 g) of gold, the first significant gold discovery in the Rocky Mountain region. News spread rapidly and by autumn, hundreds of men were working along the South Platte River. By spring 1859, tens of thousands of gold seekers arrived and the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush was under way. In the following two years, about 100,000 gold seekers flocked to the region.

That’s how our reader, Adam Feiges, describes this spooky view over South Dakota:

Adam Feiges

The badlands also get a mention in Jim’s cover story, when he’s describing the advantages of seeing the country from a low-altitude plane:

As you cross South Dakota from east to west, from the big city of Sioux Falls at the Iowa and Minnesota borders toward Rapid City and the Black Hills and beyond, you can see the terrain change sharply. In the East River portion of the state, between Sioux Falls and the Missouri, you see flat, well-watered farmlands and small farming towns. Then past Pierre you reach West River, with rough, dry badlands, some grazing cattle, and very few structures. Everyone who has looked at a map “knows” about the effect of topography and rainfall, but it means something different as it unfolds below you, like a real-world Google Earth.

Eric Bruning

Our reader captions:

I took this photo shortly after departure from New Orleans on January 11. The lower part of the photo shows the Bonnet Carré Spillway, which had just been opened to divert excess water from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain. I was returning from the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting, and it seemed fitting to have a chance to observe this rare event. I was struck by how many public agencies’ quiet, routine efforts resulted in an accurate forecast of water levels so that action could be taken to protect the citizens of New Orleans.

The spillway was in the news this weekend when a massive fire destroyed the train tracks that run across it. Here’s some background on the spillway itself:

Adam Zerda

Our reader captured this view “flying home from Shanghai in 2013, and I was blown away in seeing just how frozen Lake Erie could get in the dead of winter.” Frozen enough to walk clear across it, as Dave Voelker did in 1978:

To a novice, a winter walk across frozen Lake Erie to Canada is almost certain death. To a person trained in wilderness skills, it’s just a calculated risk— an uncommon sort of trip that might seem foolhardy at first impression, but which becomes more and more feasible with every map, depth chart and weather report that you study. At its narrowest, the lake’s width is only 30 miles — a comfortable two-day jaunt if you’re in shape. Most years, its surface freezes solid all the way across, to a thickness that will usually support a party of hikers. The biggest danger is that of exposure, since the barren surface offers no escape from the malevolent elements of winter, especially wind. Solve that problem, and you’ve got the whole thing licked.

When Lake Erie isn’t entirely frozen over, its icy waves often create, well, eerie sculptures against the shore. Recently, a whole car was encased in ice.

Kristopher Murphy

A reader sends a scene where it’s hard to tell at first glance what’s land and what’s water:

I love this idea. Here’s a photo taken from my home-built plane over the upper Mississippi River near Prairie duChen, WI. I’m sending from my cell phone, so let me know if it doesn’t turn out right.

Just right. More on the scene:

Often referred to as Wisconsin’s second oldest city, Prairie du Chien was established as a European settlement by French voyageurs in the late seventeenth century. The city is located near the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, a strategic point along the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway that connects the Great Lakes with the Mississippi.

Early French visitors to the site found it occupied by a group of Fox Indians led by a chief whose name Alim meant Chien in French (Dog in English). The French explorers named the location Prairie du Chien, French for “Dog’s Prairie.” The American anglicized pronunciation is “prairie doo sheen.”

Mount San Gorgonio, from the south. This picture was taken one year ago. Today, much of the territory in view became part of a new National Monument.

In our American Futures section, I’ve just described President Obama’s creation today of three new National Monuments. You can read the full details there. I’m adding a note here to tie it to the ongoing saga of aerial depictions of our nation.

My wife Deb took this photo out the right window of our little propeller airplane. It was on Valentine’s Day 2015, one year ago this week, as we traveled from Ajo, Arizona, to San Bernardino, California, on a reporting trip.

The summit of Mount San Gorgonio, with a bare covering of snow during California’s long drought, is just over 11,500 feet high. At the time, our plane was at 8,500 feet (though we could have been climbing to 10,500) and was about ten miles away from the peak. We were in the middle of the Banning Pass, with San Gorgonio and the San Bernardino mountains to the north and Mount San Jacinto to the south.

This pass can be turbulent, unpleasant, and even risky when the winds are strong. On those days, small-plane pilots avoid it and take a roundabout route via Palmdale and the (broader, less bumpy) Cajon Pass. But winds were smooth enough that day. The only real aviation challenge was the big, fat No Fly zone right over Palm Springs airport in the middle of the pass. Air Force One had just landed not long before we passed by; Obama was spending the night there, reportedly for a weekend round of golf.

***

And by purest serendipity, what you’re seeing in this shot is the very same Mount San Gorgonio you see in the elegant airliner shot by reader Marco Pallotti, in the preceding note that Chris posted yesterday. This gives you an idea of how much higher airliners fly than little propeller planes — and also what the Banning Pass looks like from above. It’s the gap you see between the foreground and background mountains in Pallotti’s shot.

Marco Pallotti

For our new photo series, reader Marco Pallotti happened to send a view captured on my 29th birthday—May 3, 2011—on a flight from Newark to Los Angeles:

In the foreground is snow-capped San Gorgonio Mountain, in the San Bernardino National Forest, with Mt. San Jacinto in the distance. In the valley between the two peaks is the town of Cabazon, and on the far left is the western edge of the Coachella Valley.

Fun facts about that forest: It was the filming location for Daniel Boone (1936) and Paint Your Wagon (1969). That area of Southern California also features prominently in Jim’s new cover story, specifically the nearby cities of San Bernardino and Redlands, his hometown:

When I was growing up [in Redlands], in the Baby Boom era, its economy rested on the orange-growing business, the neighboring Norton Air Force Base, and a medical community serving the nearby desert area. Now the orange groves are nearly gone, the Air Force base is closed, and the desert communities have their own doctors—but the city has been transformed by the presence of a tech firm that by all rights should be in some bigger, fancier place. This company, Esri, is a world leader in geographic information systems, or GIS. These are essentially the industrial-strength counterparts to Google Earth, which governments and companies around the world use for everything from tracking pothole repairs to monitoring climate change.

An intermodal yard near Midway Airport in Chicago / A dam northeast of Phoenix

Just before the release of his new cover story, “How America Is Putting Itself Back Together,” Jim broached the idea of readers sending in photos from flights they’ve taken over the U.S., in line with his three-year journey across the states in a single-engine plane:

We’d like to concentrate on collecting aerial shots only — from small planes and airliners, from helicopters and airplanes, from altitudes high enough to reveal large-scale geographic patterns and low enough to display surprising neighborhood or city-planning details. […] Please send any relevant photos, with identifying info—when, where, how, and what’s interesting about what we’re looking at.

A reader and former follower of the Dish, Ann Fisher, jumps at the idea:

This one is above the Great Salt Lake, taken November 2012:

You can tell I’m pretty excited about this. I have more, all from commercial flights.

Two more of Ann’s photos are seen in the diptych above. If you have a good aerial view you’d like share, please email hello@theatlantic.com. (Photos with a small part of the plane visible—a wing, a propellor, the edge of a window—are preferable, and please send the largest file size you have.)