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 104 Newer Notes

America by Air: A Mystery in the West ... Solved

Eric Zimmerman

Over the weekend I posted the above photo from a reader, Eric Zimmerman, who had stumped his family and friends over the location of this remote area in the western U.S. Many readers wrote in with their own guesses. “Looks like a photovoltaic [solar] farm in the area of Alamosa, Colorado,” says Joe. Nope, but here’s a stunning image of a solar farm in Pfeffenhausen, Germany, a satellite image I just came across in an amazing Instagram account from Anthony Quigley (which we’ll be using for many Orbital Views). Another reader, Dan:

It’s a chemical warfare chemical depot. There are ones in Nevada, Utah, and Oregon, that I know of.  My guess is this is in Oregon, since it doesn’t look like the ones I know of in Nevada or Utah.

Other guesses from readers include:

  • “It’s a server farm”
  • “Greenhouses”
  • “Farm worker housing”
  • “Looks like ammunition magazines/storage bunkers”

But the answer is something far more specific—and disturbing. Here’s reader Steve Karwan:

Karen Solstad

Our reader Karen goes into great detail:

I love this series! As a kid I would lie on the living room floor devouring our atlas. Then, 23 years working for Northwest Airlines at Logan Airport offered me many travel opportunities, and like many of your readers I was a window seat junkie (when I could get one as a standby employee). The landscape unfolding below us was always interesting and sometimes amazing. The classics: Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Denali during a Chicago-to-Tokyo flight, volcanic plumes in Indonesia, Alaska, and even a glimpse of red magma at Mt. Mihara south of Tokyo in the mid 1980s. Once, after a week of sailing along the coast of Nova Scotia and back to Maine, reading old stories of shipwrecks and adventures along the way, on our puddle jumper from Portland to Boston I suddenly glimpsed the infamous Boon Island.

Here’s Wikipedia on the shipwreck of the Nottingham Galley on December 11, 1710:

All fourteen crewmen aboard survived the initial wreck, however two died from their injuries and another two drowned attempting to reach the mainland on an improvised raft. The remaining ten crewmen managed to stay alive despite winter conditions with no food and no fire for twenty-four days, until finally rescued. They resorted to cannibalism which gave the incident a notoriety that it retains even today. It is said that after the Nottingham Galley disaster, local fishermen began leaving barrels of provisions on Boon Island in case of future wrecks.

Back to our reader, who guides us through the above photo:

Eric Zimmerman

Here’s a challenge for Chini, from a reader:

As a habitual window-seat photo snapper, I love the aerial photo series. I’ve had a long-running game with my family where we take a photo from the air, send it around to family members, and see who can figure out where it is.

Here’s one that stumped everyone. I took it a couple of years back, from an airliner at cruise altitude. I happened to look down at the right moment and saw this pattern on the ground. I had a hunch what it might be, took the photo, and later confirmed my guess with Google Earth.

Some context that might help: This location is in a fairly arid Western state (obviously). The site is quite isolated, and far from any significant population centers. But it is at the edge of an agricultural valley, rather than in total desert.

I’m curious if any staff or readers get it. I’ll put the the answer in a separate message for spoiler protection.

Any good guesses? Just say hello@.

Andrew Rodgers

Another well-framed shot from a reader:

Here’s the Philadelphia skyline coming back from a flight from LA. I still can't believe that up until the late ‘80s, the tallest building was City Hall. You can barely see it now. Shows how much things can change.

Thanks for a phenomenal series!

Rebecca Pinkus
Google Earth

A reader figures out the location of yesterday’s aerial view from Rebecca Pinkus and sends the above image from Google Earth that matches it exactly:

Howdy, Atlantic staff! Yesterday’s, uh, view from an airplane window looks north, north-east over the town of Ashburn, Virginia. A best estimate is that the picture was taken at 2:42:57 PM on January 30th, at 38.9775N/77.543W from an altitude of 4,100 feet shortly after takeoff from Dulles’ runway 30. The high school immediately adjacent to the water towers is Ashburn’s Briar Woods High.

It’s too bad your reader gave the arrival and departure cities; this location would have been slightly harder to find without them.

That email is from Doug Chini, the legendary guru of the View From Your Window Contest—a weekly feature I edited for years at The Dish, beginning in 2010 when Andrew and I were at The Atlantic. Every week we posted a photo from a reader’s window and invited others to guess the location. The resulting entries I edited together were mind-boggling in their detail and precision, in addition to the local color, history, and personal stories the views solicited from readers. Chini was hands down the most accurate and consistently impressive player, so it was so cool to see him pop up in the Notes inbox this morning, out of the blue.

Mitchell Yee

Another fantastic shot from a reader:

Located at the southern end of California’s Central Valley, Bakersfield—the county seat of Kern County, which is one of the largest counties in the U.S.—is a microcosm of the economic and political issues confronting California’s Central Valley. The problems start with drought and water resource mismanagement but also continue to other issues ranging from urbanization of prime farmland, salinization of prime farmland, air pollution (this area is consistently in the top ten areas with the worst air quality in the U.S. as rated by the American Lung Association), and poverty.

I’ve been working on a photo study of the area, and because of the size of the county (8200 square miles), I took to the air, specifically in a Cessna 172 with the passenger-side window removed for photography. This photo is a view of the massive Chevron oilfield north of Bakersfield called Oildale. At the time of the shot, October 2015, the field was nearly in full production, driven by the price of crude oil that was hovering around $50 per barrel.

Rebecca Pinkus

The detail in this wintry view is wonderful:

Great project you’re doing. Here’s a shot that I particularly like from a recent flight on a prop plane from Dulles to Toronto (Porter Airlines)—a few days after the “epic blizzard” in January 2016.

If you think you know the town, let us know.

Sebastian Gregg

These aerial shots from readers are getting better and better:

Good afternoon! I want to share my submission for America From the Air—a photo I took while flying from Miami to Guatemala City in March 2015. It was the second leg of a journey from Brazil to Guatemala. At the time, I was an American diplomat stationed at the U.S. Consulate General in Sao Paulo and starting a temporary duty assignment (TDY) at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City.

I am a window seat junkie who meticulously chooses my seat based on the prevailing runway patterns and last-minute checks of runways in use on flightaware.com to get the best possible views on takeoffs and landings. As a Miami native and Foreign Service Officer who didn’t get to travel home often enough, I was thrilled to see my research pay off with this colorful photo of downtown Miami and Biscayne Bay. The Brickell neighborhood and Brickell Key are to the left of the mouth of the Miami river, with the city’s center and the American Airlines Arena (which has an airplane silhouette on the roof) just below the leading edge of the 737’s wing.

Thanks for putting together this great series, I’ve loved the submissions so far. (Especially the photo of the National Mall ... I always try and sit on the left side of the plane when flying into Reagan!)

But a wide-open scene of the Seattle skyline:

Martín Lorenzo

Details from the reader:

Flying into SeaTac on July 19, 2015. (The photo is unfiltered.) You can see the Seattle waterfront, which is dead center, where the Great Wheel is.

On-the-ground views here. It’s the tallest Ferris wheel on the West Coast, at 175 feet (53.3 m). The tallest in the U.S., and the world, is the High Roller, towering over Las Vegas at 550 foot (167.6 m). Full list here.

Laura Hagan

A reader gets nostalgic:

I lived in Mammoth Lakes, California (a ski town in the Eastern Sierra) for several years and still consider it home, even though I live in DC now. Flying from DC to San Francisco on December 7, 2015, I deliberately sat on the left side of the plane so I would be sure to see my old home as we flew by.

In the center of the shot you can see Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, with its well-defined lower runs and its great white expanse across the top of the ridge. In the lower right, you can see June Mountain, Mammoth’s smaller sister. After the terrible drought of the last several years, I was very happy to see a decent snow cover this early in the season. When I lived there from ’96 to ’03, we had several years of 400+ inches of snow and good skiing from November into June.

Seeing the place even now takes my breath away, I miss it so.

Jordan P. Williams

A well-framed shot of Chicago from May 2015:

I was onboard a Southwest flight into Midway and caught this view of the loop, all the skyscrapers and even Navy Pier! What’s really striking is the huge swath of green right along the lake—Grant Park and Millennium Park.

The latter got off to a rough start:

Matthew Schaidle

From a 2nd lieutenant in the Marine Corps:

This photo was taken on November 11, 2014, when I was arriving at Reagan National (DCA) from Boston (BOS). It had been a great trip, visiting such a historic town with a close military friend on Veterans Day. As I looked out the window during the final descent, I realized I picked the right side of the plane to see a stunning view of the nation’s capital. I pulled out my phone just in time to capture this view of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Memorial, Reflecting Pool, White House (barely), Capitol Building, and the rest of the National Mall.

The Watergate, where The Atlantic is headquartered, is just out of frame.