Reporter's Notebook

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.)

Show None Newer Notes

America by Air: What a Former Flight Instructor Misses

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.]

Heading south from Seattle, with Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, and other volcanic peaks to the east. (Tom Fallows)

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.

Coming home to the Bay Area. (Tom Fallows)

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.

Daniel Peña

This reader gives us props:

I really enjoyed “How America Is Putting Itself Back Together,” as well as your reader series on aerial photography, “America by Air,” which is one of my new favorite things. As a private pilot, I’ve been dying to submit, so today I thought I’d drop a line and share what I have.  

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.

Evan Day

More props from a reader:

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.

Marshall Collins

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.  

I’ve had the good fortune of seeing several circular rainbows over the years. Phil Plait had a great article about them in Slate several years ago.

                                                                                                                                                              Stu Smith

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:

Kristopher Murphy

Another fascinating view from a reader:

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.

More details from KWQC, a local news station:

Matt Low

A reader and talented photographer, Matt Low, introduces a subgenre to our aerial photo feature:

I wanted to share some of the images I’ve been taking of elusive plane shadows from window seats. I make sure I alway sit on the shaded side of the plane to try and capture these.

During the 9/11 attacks, I lived just a few blocks away from the WTC on Duane Street, and I heard the first plane go overhead and crash into the tower. It took a while before I wasn’t spooked by the doppler effect of a plane passing by. Taking these photos has been a cathartic process for me, even though I still find the sight of shadows of the planes over buildings fairly sinister.

Here’s the photo gallery. All but #6 and #11 were taken over the U.S., mostly on approach to LGA or ORD, a trip I take a lot.

Above is a screenshot I took of Matt’s gallery. If you have any similar shots of plane silhouettes, please send them our way: hello@theatlantic.com.

                                                                                                                     Matty Senior, via Matthew Amend

Matthew Amend of Seattle, with whom I have corresponded about piloting issues for years, sends this photo. Here’s his explanation:

I just found your series. It’s great! As an 18-year paraglider pilot, I may be biased, but I firmly maintain that the best, most unobstructed way to view America by air is by dangling beneath a big kite!

Here’s my submission (of me, not taken by me—taken by Matty Senior). I’m taking a friend for a ride in my two seat (“tandem”) paraglider above Tiger mountain in Issaquah, WA. January 2015. Perfectly backed by a rainbow and low cumulus clouds with lake Sammammish in the distance. No Photoshop; that’s straight from the camera.

Have a look at the USHPA [U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association] photo gallery here. Aerial photos by my friend Jody MacDonald are particularly epic.

Seattle looms large in all things aviation-related, due mainly to the presence of Boeing. It looms large in my own aviation-related life, since I got my instrument rating while living there in 1999, training with instructor Chris Baker of Wings Aloft at Boeing Field in downtown Seattle; and then in 2000 did seaplane training with instructor Chris Jacob of Kenmore Air, which flies floatplanes out of the local lakes, bays, and inlets.

It also looms large in recent photos in this series. Here is another one via Stu Smith, a colleague of Chris Jacob’s at Kenmore:

This photo was taken by a passenger (I don’t recall the name) in a Beaver [JF note: a very popular floatplane] looking to the southeast.  If not for the clouds, Washington State’s iconic Mt. Rainier would be visible on the distant horizon.

When the wind dictates a south departure from Lake Union (as it did in this flight), the climbout takes us past the Space Needle. It’s a pretty spectacular departure, which I’ve yet to tire of after 12 seasons. When the wind shifts to the north, the arrival and landing direction is reversed, taking us past the Space Needle in a descent. I think that tourists looking out from the Space Needle enjoy watching our departures and arrivals as much as the passengers on the plane enjoy watching them watching us!

I got to fly this route sometimes when doing training. It’s reason enough to do pilot training, or at least to take a sightseeing flight.

    John Zimmerman

    We started “America by Air” as a month-long series of aerial photos from readers that accompanied Jim’s March cover story, “How America Is Putting Itself Back Together,” which he reported with his wife Deb over three years across the U.S. via their single-engine plane. Readers not only keep sending more and more submissions, but the quality of the photos and anecdotes are getting better and better. So we’ve now turned “America by Air” into a standard feature of Notes, posting one a day, more or less, for the indefinite future, joining the ranks of Orbital View and Track of the Day. So please keep ‘em coming. Submission guidelines here.

    The latest aerial view is a real beauty, coming from reader John Zimmerman:

    Every year I like to fly to the big Oshkosh air show low and slow, enjoying the view at 90 knots—after all, getting to the big fly-in really is half the fun. One of the highlights of the trip every year from my home base in Cincinnati to Wisconsin is the Chicago area. If the weather is good, there’s no better flight than the one that follows the lakefront. The route takes you past famous landmarks like Navy Pier, Wrigley Field, and Willis Tower (you can look up at some office workers and wave). The only downer is the flight over abandoned Meigs airport, which sits barren and undeveloped, a lasting reminder of political misconduct.

    As is true so many places in the U.S., no special clearances or equipment is required—just keep your head on a swivel and enjoy the view. It’s one of those “only in America” moments that knocks off the cynicism just a bit.