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.)

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America by Air: A Mystery in the West

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@.

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

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:

Adam Feiges

A previous contributor returns for another pass, this time looking north at the Peetz Table Wind Farm near Padroni, Colorado:

Operated by Nextera Energy, this power station’s 300 wind turbines produce over 420 mw of power when the wind is blowing. Nextera, a descendant of Florida Power and Light, is the nation’s largest wholesale producer of electric power. Hydroelectric stations in Maine, the storied Seabrooke nuclear plant, and the nation’s second largest solar station in the Mohave Desert are just some of the generating assets operated by the publicly traded company valued at over 50 billion dollars.

In the background is the wheat country of the Nebraska panhandle. Directly below the plane is a Minuteman III ICBM silo, and if you look really hard you can see hydraulic fracturing well sites in the valley of the South Platte River, which runs to the south of our flight track.

Dan Wiley

One of the best entries yet:

Here are a few photos I took during a trip up the Chicago Lakeshore Drive VFR corridor on St. Patrick’s Day 2014. It had been a brutal winter with the Great Lakes nearly completely frozen in February. By mid-March, there were still ice floes crowding the southern shores of Lake Michigan. Brrr…  

The weather was clear and sunny, and it was a unique look at the Windy City on a clear and cold day. Flying at 1000ft-1200ft AGL right next to the Chicago Skyline and under the Class Bravo airspace for Chicago O’Hare (ORD) is always a special treat—one of the wonderful things about the U.S. general aviation system.

It’s also eye-opening to fly over the industrial wastelands south of Chicago, past the centers of business and commerce, to the mansions and private golf courses north of the city lining the same lake. The distance of 20-30 miles on the same lakeshore can be worlds apart from an economic activity and wealth perspective.  

Dan Wiley
Geoffrey Legg

As our series starts to wind down, here’s one of many mountain views emailed in by readers:

It’s always a treat to fly between Southern California and Seattle, as it affords some spectacular views of the Sierras and the Cascade Range along the way (when clouds aren’t in the way)!  This view of Mount St. Helens was taken in March 2014 on the southbound journey home.  Sadly I only had my phone with me at the time, but the low sun angle made for some cool highlights off the water and the wing. The new dome is just barely visible inside of the large crater.

Alan put together a great gallery last year of the 1980 eruption.

Aaron Bode

It’s a view of optimism for this reader:

As an economics student with a passion for amateur photography, I’ve been thrilled with this unique supplement to James Fallows’s excellent work on the resilience and diligence of the American people!

I took this early-morning photo of Manhattan as we made our crescent descent into LaGuardia this past January. The interplay between the dark clouds and the morning glow reflected the state of my emotions at the time. I made the trip to the city for two reasons: Firstly, I needed an expedited visa in order to return to the UK for my yearlong study abroad, and secondly, a friend and I were to begin a pre-semester international journey from JFK a day later. Obtaining the visa was essential, and as life would have it, I was desperately falling for this particular friend (whom I had not seen in person for over six months). Looking out the left-side window at the glimmering One World Trade Center, it was impossible not to project my hopes and fears onto “the concrete jungle where dreams are made of.” From the air, at least, the city and its background seemed to perfectly reflect the issues swirling in my head.

As I type this note from the English countryside months later, I’m relieved and elated to report that I got the visa—and the girl.

Andrew Stein

This reader had a lovely view after a long night:

This was a 6am flight into NYC after getting stuck in Syracuse for work the night before due to weather. We’re cutting across Manhattan before looping around to LGA. Central Park, Hudson River, and the GW Bridge are all visible.

In our aerial series so far, we have mostly seen photos from commercial airplanes flying tens of thousands of feet above the ground, but some were taken from smaller private planes and even the very top of the Empire State building. None from a helicopter yet, so here’s a photo I took hovering above a Salt Lake City suburb en route to the Canyons ski resort just over the horizon. My stepbrother at the time (February 2011) was a helicopter pilot working the season in Park City, flying backcountry skiers up and down the mountain. I nearly got a free seat when one of the heli-skiers cancelled at the last minute, but someone working at the resort scooped it up instead. I did, however, get this solo ride during my stepbrother’s half-hour commute from the hangar in Salt Lake City, landing right on the ski slope. The coolest thing about this photo is the whirring helicopter blades caught in a freeze frame.

Allan Janus

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.

Previous blimp blogging here.

Gene McGill

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.

Riley Roberts

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.