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 email@example.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.)
This picture is looking down at the former Savanna Army Depot just South of Hanover, Illinois, this weekend. The Mississippi River is in the background. Large sections are now being used for temporary storage of rail cars, but you can see the remains of roads that were once lined by ammunition bunkers.
The U.S. Army began work there in 1917 with military weapons testing and the grounds boomed to life. During World War II it was the largest Army depot in the county. Over the years it was also used to store, manufacture and recycle munitions.
Later, it was listed for BRAC closure and the depot officially shut its doors in 2000. Today, much of the property is out-of-bounds due to environmental contaminants. The areas that are off-limits to the public today are surrounded by tall fences and posted with signs that say restricted. However, you can still get pretty close enough to see many of the old buildings.
Especially if you’re in a small plane. But the area isn’t entirely abandoned:
“It might look like a ghost town, but that’s because you can’t see the activity,” said Alan Anderson, a Wildlife Refuge Operation Specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There is some work happening with the railroad and efforts to redevelop the area, but Anderson works there for a different reason. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been developing a National Wildlife Refuge here for actually 20 years,” he said.
The Army has transferred over about 10,000 acres that’s now called the Lost Mound Unit. Only part of it is open to visitors. “The work the military did disturbed some of the habitat that’s out here but it also preserved some of the habitat that’s out here,” added Anderson.
Yesterday Stu Smith, who flies as a seasonal pilot for Kenmore Air in the Seattle area, shared a wonderful photo of a circular rainbow.
I’m very familiar with and fond of Kenmore Air, and not simply because my wife Deb and I took some of their seaplane flights for travel around the Puget Sound area when we lived in Seattle in 1999 and 2000. It’s also because I took seaplane-flying lessons there from Smith’s Kenmore colleague, Chris Jacob.
Because they fly so low-and-slow, and because they often land on lakes, bays, and shorelines right near cities, seaplanes generally offer a particularly striking version of the aerial view. In his note, Stu explains what we are seeing above:
I’ve flown for Kenmore for a dozen seasons in DeHavil and Beavers and Turbine Otters, all on floats. All of our flying is single-pilot, and
the company is certified to carry passengers in the copilot’s seat. I
often receive photos taken by passengers who are kind enough to share, since I tend to be occupied at the controls. Most of our flying is
low-level, typically below 5,000 feet above the ground. This is an
ideal height to see detail on the ground as well as a distant, synoptic view.
The photo above was taken by a passenger (name lost to history) sitting in the copilot’s seat. We’re flying in a Beaver on a scenic flight, southbound over Seattle’s Lake Union. Lake Union is freshwater, and is our primary takeoff and landing site. The seaplane dock, where Kenmore’s passengers embark and disembark, is just to the right of photo center (at the moment unoccupied).
Downtown is out of sight to the photo’s left, about a mile or so off our nose. Beyond the Space Needle to the southwest is Elliot Bay and then Admiralty Inlet, which are saltwater and part of Puget Sound. The plane’s right front float is just visible in the lower-left portion of the image.
Stu Smith, a reader who works as a seasonal commercial seaplane pilot for Seattle’s Kenmore Air, passes along a real beauty:
This photo was taken from the copilot’s seat by my friend Marshall Collins, who is a flight instructor at Clover Park Technical College (where I received my training and was also a flight instructor). This was a scheduled flight in a Beaver from Seattle to Victoria, British Columbia. We were about a third of the way into the 70 mile-long, northwest-bound flight when the circular rainbow appeared below us. If Marshall had had a wider-angle lens, he would have caught the entire circle.
At the time of the photo we were over the small village of Port Gamble, Washington, which had a long history as a timber and sawmill town. We’re looking to the northeast, with Point Julia in the foreground, the Kitsap Peninsula in the middle distance and Admiralty Inlet in the far distance. Marshall was riding along as my guest, since there was an unsold seat on this flight and he was available to join me.
Love this series so far and thought I’d throw in one of mine. This shot was taken along the central California coast in the Big Sur area after taking off from Monterey en route to Montgomery Field in San Diego in a Diamond DA-40. In contrast to all of the great shots so far on (mostly) clear days, this photo was captured under instrument flight rules. [CB note: That’s defined as “rules and regulations established by the FAA to govern flight under conditions in which flight by outside visual reference is not safe”—in contrast to visual flight rules.]
The right side of the picture shows an interesting pattern that tends to show up in cell phone pictures taken from propeller aircraft. The best explanation I have found is here.
Here’s a photo of Lake Bryan I took flying over beautiful Bryan, Texas. I love shooting photographs over the cowling of my Cessna 152 because of the effect that the moving propeller creates in the lens, like drifting horizontal tildes [ ~ ] cutting into the frame. Of course, you can’t see this effect with the naked eye, but it always shows up on a digital photo. As a Mexican-American pilot, I like to think of the tildes as benevolent latinate characters greeting me in the sky. Think Super Mario and those friendly clouds.
It’s overcast today in Seattle, where my wife Deb and I have come for the annual Citizens University conference — an inspiring gathering of civic-engagement activists from around the country. But two days ago skies were clear along the West Coast. That is when reader (and son) Tom Fallows of San Francisco took pictures as he left Seattle, above, and came into San Francisco, below.
No comment needed, beyond remarking that this is a beautiful part of a beautiful country (and world).
After the jump, a reaction from another reader, involving the theme of fathers and sons and the view from above.
A reader in Southern California reacts to a post from a former flight instructor who said how much he loved the low-altitude view. Emphasis added — I have flown through this same area and can picture the scene he describes:
Similar memories of flying in the Riverside, CA and surrounding areas a long time ago.
Loved flying at lower altitudes; had the feeling of flying through a valley, rather than over it. Especially in the morning air, when it was smooth - magical, indescribable feeling. Following the Santa Ana River to the beach, south along the coast, and back over the hills to RAL [Riverside Municipal] was also a favorite. [JF note: I have flown this same route, from the airports in Redlands and San Bernardino toward those on the coast. It is magical, though usually with enough other airborne traffic that you can spend too much time just taking in the view.]
Would absolutely love to get back into it again, but my wife is fearful. I'm scheming tho'. We have a boy on the way… That boy is going to experience small aircraft flight early in his life (I'll take him while mommy is at work). He'll be addicted and it will be two against one!
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.
A reader who goes by Glenn got perilously close to an erupting volcano:
During one of my trips to Hawaii, I decided to get creative and take a ride in a replica of a 1939 biplane. Over Kilauea. There is nothing like the thermals in a biplane over an active volcano.
Needless to say, taking pictures was problematic. Almost all the shots came out completely out of focus. [The one above] is an example of “That would have been a great shot if I only could hold the camera still for one more second.”
Here’s what Kilauea looked like this week, in timelapse, via Hawaii 24/7:
A reader sends this shot of Los Angeles and an affectionate nod to the city’s pollution problem:
I snapped this picture upon my return from a year-long master’s program in Oxford, England. After enduring all that noxious clean air and lush English countryside, I have to say I’ve never been more excited to see such a sprawling and smoggy grid before: home sweet smelly home.
I’m stepping in for Chris Bodenner, usual host in this space, because I was so delighted to hear the back story behind today’s reader photo. Riley Roberts sent it early this month:
As a newly-certified pilot (I passed my FAA checkride just yesterday), I've spent a lot of time puttering around the DC area’s tightly-controlled airspace over the last few months, both solo and with my instructor. [JF note: Congratulations!]
One of my favorite things about flying, particularly on crisp winter days, is the view: when the air is clear, you can see for miles. Once you’re at altitude and on course, with the plane trimmed for cruise, the cockpit isn’t overwhelmingly busy. There’s no sound other than the drone of the engine and occasional radio chatter in your headset. It becomes almost dreamlike—with the landscape slowly rolling by, the horizon rocking up across your field of vision with each bank of the wings, and nothing but open sky for a mile in every direction.
I snapped this photo of Maryland’s western shore from the pilot’s seat about a month ago, just a few days after the massive snowstorm that shut down the area. It took almost a week to clear the runway at my local airport, so the snow had begun to recede by the time I got back into the air. But the world still looked dramatically different—and absolutely gorgeous.
What I’ve learned over the decades is that many people shudder at the very idea of small-plane flight. But those of us who love it, love it for exactly the reason the reader explains so well. It is a dreamlike state, in which you do what people through the first 99.9% of human existence only imagined: moving through the air as if swimming, seeing the Earth from above. If you enjoy this, you never tire of it.
Here is a sample of what I thought of when I read this submission: the scene from out the side window of our plane about a year ago, when my wife Deb and I were traveling across the Mojave from Arizona to Southern California. By the laws of physics and the workings of the Earth’s curvature, from 8500 feet up, as I think we were then, we would be able to see features 80 to 100 miles away. The map showed that the mountains to the north were at least that distant; from inside the plane, the view seemed limitless.
At the opposite scale of intimacy, the photo below shows the other aspect of the aerial view. This was taken out the front window of the plane, when we were less than 1,000 feet above the ground and coming in for a landing in the tiny town of Chester, Montana. What I remember about this “sight picture,” as it’s called, is the way the runway appeared to be almost an extension of Chester’s main street. The runway is what looks like a short street, just beyond the town and paralleling the highway.
Deb will be writing more about Chester and why we went there, which involved its surprising role in the arts.
Congratulations again to Riley Roberts. Next, on to instrument training! If you haven’t read it already, be sure to buy, read, and re-read the timeless classic of airmanship, Wolfgang Langewiesche’s Stick and Rudder. It was published in 1944 (by the late father of my friend and former Atlantic colleague William Langewiesche) and seems as if it could have been written yesterday. It’s a good idea to read The Killing Zonetoo—the survival guide to the first ~250 hours as a pilot. Fly safely, so you can have the longest possible span through which to observe these sights.
Just when I think the series is coming to a close, we get an especially great email from a reader:
My work has taken me to Barrow, Alaska, on several occasions over the years. This photo was shot immediately after taking off from Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport in Barrow. The west end of the runway ends close to the Chukchi Sea, and the view in this photo is looking southwest along that coast. Barrow is behind the aircraft, not visible in this view. The landing gear is not yet fully retracted and we are already turning toward Fairbanks, our next stop.
The most significant attribute of this photo is that it was taken on October 2, 2014, and there is no sea ice in sight.
Sea ice up to the shore protects the shore from erosion during storms. Of all the months of the year, October has warmed most above the historic normal in Barrow (pdf). The October departure from the normal between 1979 and 2012 was 7.2 degrees Celsius. Consequently, the sea freezes much later than it used to and this exposes Barrow to strong waves from autumn storms that severely erode the coastline.
The town itself, along with many other smaller settlements in northern and western Alaska, are facing existential threats from these storms. Extensive dredge and fill operations are required to replace beach sand washed away by storms. Barrow is seeking funds for a seawall, estimated to cost between $200 million and $1 billion.
Update from another reader, who’s a total buzzkill for the series:
It is fitting that this existential threat is highlighted in a thread about people flying in airplanes, given that:
Flying, particularly on long-haul flights, is so highly emitting that it dwarfs everything else on an individual carbon budget. Many climate groups have calculated that in a sustainable world each person would have a carbon allowance of two to four tons of carbon emissions annually. Any single long-haul flight nearly “instantly uses that up,” said Christian Jardine, a senior researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University.
For many people reading this, air travel is their most serious environmental sin. One round-trip flight from New York to Europe or to San Francisco creates about 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person.
Let’s see some photos taken from bicycles! Depending, of course, upon how the bicyclist is fueled: “. . . the Prius-driving vegan beats the meat-eating bicyclist by about half a ton in annual carbon impact.”
I spoke too soon when I noted last night that we’ve only received aerial photos from airplanes so far:
I hope it’s not too late to submit a photo! This one was taken from the Shamu blimp over Virginia around 1990. The blimp came from SeaWorld to Manassas Airport to provide camera services for a University of Virginia football game. I was lucky enough to snag a seat on a practice flight the day before the game. We took off from Manassas and cruised over the Virginia countryside to Charlottesville. We orbited the stadium for a bit, then flew over Monticello, and basically had a beautiful sightseeing tour over the Valley of Virginia in the fine fall weather.
At one point, we were joined by the friendly little biplane in my picture. (In the background is the Blue Ridge, or maybe it’s the Alleghenies...) We were in the air for about six hours, and after seeing a beautiful sunset, we landed by the light of the full Harvest Moon. A magical flight …
Anyway, I doubt you’ll see many more contemporary shots of a biplane in flight, taken from an airship.
Colonizing the red planet is a ridiculous way to help humanity.
There’s no place like home—unless you’re Elon Musk. A prototype of SpaceX’s Starship, which may someday send humans to Mars, is, according to Musk, likely to launch soon, possibly within the coming days. But what motivates Musk? Why bother with Mars? A video clip from an interview Musk gave in 2019 seems to sum up Musk’s vision—and everything that’s wrong with it.
In the video, Musk is seen reading a passage from Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot. The book, published in 1994, was Sagan’s response to the famous image of Earth as a tiny speck of light floating in a sunbeam—a shot he’d begged NASA to have the Voyager 1 spacecraft take in 1990 as it sailed into space, 3.7 billion miles from Earth. Sagan believed that if we had a photo of ourselves from this distance, it would forever alter our perspective of our place in the cosmos.
When the polio vaccine was declared safe and effective, the news was met with jubilant celebration. Church bells rang across the nation, and factories blew their whistles. “Polio routed!” newspaper headlines exclaimed. “An historic victory,” “monumental,” “sensational,” newscasters declared. People erupted with joy across the United States. Some danced in the streets; others wept. Kids were sent home from school to celebrate.
One might have expected the initial approval of the coronavirus vaccines to spark similar jubilation—especially after a brutal pandemic year. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the steady drumbeat of good news about the vaccines has been met with a chorus of relentless pessimism.
It’s not just one problem—and we’re going to need a portfolio of approaches to solve it.
Why wouldn’t someone want a COVID-19 vaccine?
Staring at the raw numbers, it doesn’t seem like a hard choice. Thousands of people are dying of COVID-19 every day. Meanwhile, out of the 75,000 people who received a shot in the vaccine trials from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and Novavax, zero died and none were hospitalized after four weeks. As the United States screams past 500,000 fatalities, the choice between a deadly disease and a shot in the arm might seem like the easiest decision in the world.
Or not. One-third of American adults said this month that they don’t want the vaccine or are undecided about whether they’ll get one. That figure has declined in some polls. But it remains disconcertingly high among Republicans, young people, and certain minority populations. In pockets of vaccine hesitancy, the coronavirus could continue to spread, kill, mutate, and escape. That puts all of us at risk.
The GOP has become, in form if not in content, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of the late 1970s.
We are living in a time of bad metaphors. Everything is fascism, or socialism; Hitler’s Germany, or Stalin’s Soviet Union. Republicans, especially, want their followers to believe that America is on the verge of a dramatic time, a moment of great conflict such as 1968—or perhaps, even worse, 1860. (The drama is the point, of course. No one ever says, “We’re living through 1955.”)
Ironically, the GOP is indeed replicating another political party in another time, but not as the heroes they imagine themselves to be. The Republican Party has become, in form if not in content, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of the late 1970s.
I can already hear the howls about invidious comparisons. I do not mean that modern American Republicans are communists. Rather, I mean that the Republicans have entered their own kind of end-stage Bolshevism, as members of a party that is now exhausted by its failures, cynical about its own ideology, authoritarian by reflex, controlled as a personality cult by a failing old man, and looking for new adventures to rejuvenate its fortunes.
Adam Kinzinger says he’ll fight to take his party back from Donald Trump.
adam Kinzinger is a liberated individual—liberated from his party leadership, liberated from the fear of being beaten in a primary, liberated to speak his mind. The 43-year-old representative was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump for inciting the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“I don’t have a constitutional duty to defend against a guy that is a jerk and maybe says some things I don’t like,” Kinzinger told me, explaining what had pushed him to finally break with the president. “I do when he’s getting ready to destroy democracy—and we saw that culminate on January 6th.”
This was the sort of language a number of Republicans used in the immediate aftermath of the riot. “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on January 13. But by the end of the month, McCarthy was traveling hat in hand to Mar-a-Lago to meet with Trump.
A global pandemic doesn’t give us cause to treat the aged callously.
Crises can elicit compassion, but they can also evoke callousness. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve witnessed communities coming together (even as they have sometimes been physically forced apart), and we’ve seen individuals engaging in simple acts of kindness to remind the sick and quarantined that they are not forgotten. Yet from some quarters, we’ve also seen a degree of cruelty that is truly staggering.
Earlier today, a friend posted on Facebook about an experience he’d just had on the Upper West Side of Manhattan: “I heard a guy who looked to be in his 20s say that it’s not a big deal cause the elderly are gonna die anyway. Then he and his friend laughed … Maybe I’m lucky that I had awesome grandparents and maybe this guy didn’t but what is wrong with people???” Some have tried to dress up their heartlessness as generational retribution. As someone tweeted at me earlier today, “To be perfectly honest, and this is awful, but to the young, watching as the elderly over and over and over choose their own interests ahead of Climate policy kind of feels like they’re wishing us to a death they won’t have to experience. It’s a sad bit of fair play.”
Side effects are just a sign that protection is kicking in as it should.
At about 2 a.m. on Thursday morning, I woke to find my husband shivering beside me. For hours, he had been tossing in bed, exhausted but unable to sleep, nursing chills, a fever, and an agonizingly sore left arm. His teeth chattered. His forehead was freckled with sweat. And as I lay next to him, cinching blanket after blanket around his arms, I felt an immense sense of relief. All this misery was a sign that the immune cells in his body had been riled up by the second shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, and were well on their way to guarding him from future disease.
Side effects are a natural part of the vaccination process, as my colleague Sarah Zhang has written. Not everyone will experience them. But the two COVID-19 vaccines cleared for emergency use in the United States, made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, already have reputations for raising the hackles of the immune system: In both companies’clinical trials, at least a third of the volunteers ended up with symptoms such as headaches and fatigue; fevers like my husband’s were less common.
Chloé Zhao’s Oscar contender about one woman’s itinerant life speaks volumes about this country’s myths of self-sufficiency.
Fern (played by Frances McDormand), the hardscrabble hero of Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, is the kind of resolute, independent protagonist that has dominated American movies since the dawn of the Western genre. She drives around the country in her van, living as self-sufficiently as possible, and carries a flinty affect with people, revealing little about herself and the turmoil that has led to her life on the road. But Fern is not a bullheaded cowboy fighting on the frontier. She’s a newly widowed woman in her early 60s searching for meaningful existence in a nation that’s become hostile to ordinary citizens in need of help.
Zhao’s epic sweep of a movie, which travels the American West from Nevada to South Dakota, is crammed with beautiful photography of some of the country’s most dramatic landscapes. It’s also overflowing with Zhao’s empathetic style of storytelling, and the ensemble largely features nonactors playing themselves, relaying stories of survival on the road in the aftermath of 2008’s Great Recession. As the United States weathers another seismic economic and humanitarian crisis, Zhao’s film offers insightful perspective on how terrifying and tenuous the American dream can be.
We’ll never know for sure how contagious people are after they’re vaccinated, but we do know how they should act.
Every day, more than 1 million American deltoids are being loaded with a vaccine. The ensuing immune response has proved to be extremely effective—essentially perfect—at preventing severe cases of COVID-19. And now, with yet another highly effective vaccine on the verge of approval, that pace should further accelerate in the weeks to come.
This is creating a legion of people who no longer need to fear getting sick, and are desperate to return to “normal” life. Yet the messaging on whether they might still carry and spread the disease—and thus whether it’s really safe for them to resume their unmasked, un-distanced lives—has been oblique. Anthony Fauci said last week on CNN that “it is conceivable, maybe likely,” that vaccinated people can get infected with the coronavirus and then spread it to someone else, and that more will be known about this likelihood “in some time, as we do some follow-up studies.” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky had been no more definitive on Meet the Press a few days before, where she told the host, “We don’t have a lot of data yet to inform exactly the question that you’re asking.”
An uncertain spring, an amazing summer, a cautious fall and winter, and then, finally, relief.
Updated at 10:12 a.m. ET on February 24, 2021.
The end of the coronavirus pandemic is on the horizon at last, but the timeline for actually getting there feels like it shifts daily, with updates about viral variants, vaccine logistics, and other important variables seeming to push back the finish line or scoot it forward. When will we be able to finally live our lives again?
Pandemics are hard to predict accurately, but we have enough information to make some confident guesses. A useful way to think about what’s ahead is to go season by season. In short: Life this spring will not be substantially different from the past year; summer could, miraculously, be close to normal; and next fall and winter could bring either continued improvement or a moderate backslide, followed by a near-certain return to something like pre-pandemic life.