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 (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: 2,000 Years of Human Construction

Bill Barse, a reader who gave us a comprehensive tour of Arkansas, Tennessee, and Virginia, sends an image from amid “the endless expanse of sugar cane fields south of Lake Okeechobee, Florida”:

There were relict streams that once drained into the original Everglades that are now submerged due to sea level rise that took place over the last 2,000 years. Many archaeological sites, low-lying mounds, are present along these now submerged streams, sites that we were working on at the time of this trip. The area south of the lake is a low-lying plane with limestone bedrock barely two feet beneath the current ground surface.  And it is only several feet above sea level. This picture shows a good view of a 2,000-year-old house mound located not far from one of the relict stream channels. One of the access roads for the sugar cane fields made a U-turn around it to avoid its destruction.  

Bill flew all the way from East Stroudsberg, Pennsylvania, on this trip, and the archaeological sites near Clewiston, Florida, were his final destination. He also documented more recently built structures, from highways to horse tracks:

Jimmy Rollison

Here’s the latest from Jimmy Rollison, one of our ace photographers for the series, who’s provided stunning views over Monument Valley, Dinosaur National Monument, and the Continental Divide. This colorful one was captured over Duncan Mills, California. “It’s west of Sacramento,” he writes, “looking at the coastal range that separates the Sacramento Valley from the Napa Valley in a 1939 airplane.” Update from another reader, Frank:

That “1939 airplane” is a Beech Model 17 “Staggerwing” biplane, and I think it is the most beautiful single-engined propeller driven aircraft ever produced (although the Supermarine Spitfire is very closely competitive). The Staggerwing is, truly, Walter Beech’s masterpiece. Notice how the upper biplane wing is mounted aft of the lower, a rare feature called “negative wing stagger” that gives the airplane its unique appearance and grace.

Next time you are in DC, wander by the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall and make your way to the Golden Age of Flight gallery. Therein, a yellow Model 17 is suspended for your examination and admiration.

Thanks for the series; the photos are great.

So are the emails! Here’s the beauty that Frank mentions:


Jim Ciszewski

Reader Jim Ciszewski answers our call for photos from Indiana:

Taken on a recent trip from GSO to MDW [Greensboro, North Carolina, to Chicago, Illinois], this photo shows the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal in northwest Indiana, including ArcelorMittal (originally Inland Steel), the Whiting BP (originally Amoco) refinery, etc. I grew up on the far South Side of Chicago, not far from here, in the ’70s and early ’80s, when the “rust belt” was beginning.

Lots of rust color—and conveyor belts in action—to be seen via satellite here, where the canal empties into Lake Michigan near the plume of steam in the background of Jim’s photo:

Google Maps

What’s going on down there? The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has these statistics about what passes through the Indiana Harbor :

Commodities are iron ore, limestone, coke, gypsum, steel, cement and concrete, petroleum products, and miscellaneous bulk products. ...

Bulk commodities that pass through the harbor ... generate $332.M annually in direct revenue while supporting 1,495 direct, indirect, and induced jobs that produce $263.M per year in direct income.

Pretty impressive, Indiana. If you’ve got a photo to share—particularly one from CT, GA, ID, IA, ME, MS, NM, ND, RI, VT, or WV—let us know.

Looking toward Lancaster airport, in the Amish country of Pennsylvania, as it is drenched in a downpour. Deborah Fallows

Genuine thunderstorms, of the type that form a long line when a cold front is moving across the country into warmer, wetter air, or that pop up as isolated cloudbursts on summer afternoons, are weather perils that even big, powerful airliners must avoid. When you’re flying in thunderstormy conditions, you hear airline pilots asking controllers for re-routes around the storms. “New York Center, United 1234, we’ll need to go 30 degrees left to avoid these buildups.”

The updrafts and downdrafts of wind around a thunderstorm “cell” can be so powerful that small aircraft are supposed to fly at least 20 miles away from the storm’s edge to avoid being tossed up and down. But “non-convective” rain showers, those not from thunderstorms, are more benign. On a trip this past Wednesday from Eastport, Maine, all the way back to the Washington area in a little Cirrus, my wife Deb and I flew in rain for most of the journey. But the rain was falling from a flattish, non-stormy cloud layer far above us, and it spattered on the wings and windshield as we flew in clear skies at 4,500 feet. (For the aviation crowd: this whole trip was VFR and free of turbulence and clouds at 6,500, then 4,500, then 3,500 feet, KEPM to KGAI, with a fuel stop at KPSF.)

And sometimes we passed localized rain showers, always keeping a respectful distance. Here is how the area just over the Lancaster airport, in the heart of the Amish country of Pennsylvania, looked at about 4 p.m. on Wednesday, from 10 miles to the east, outside the rain.  What looks like a cloud reaching all the way to the ground, off the plane’s wingtip, would have seemed to people in Lancaster to be a drenching downpour. The gray you see reaching from cloud to ground is rain.  

From the ground, it’s hard to see or imagine weather other than what is affecting us at the moment. From a distance in the air you can see, godlike, the movement of different weather across the land.

Graham W. Hankey

We usually prefer images that include a piece of the plane or other aircraft, but reader Graham—hovering here over Ketchum, Idaho—included his own feet:

I was on a hiking and biking vacation in Ketchum, Idaho, and decided to try paragliding (much to my wife’s chagrin) after watching several gliders launch from the summit of Mt. Baldy, the major ski mountain in the valley. I contacted Fly Sun Valley, the only licensed paragliding outfit in the area, and made arrangements for a tandem flight the next evening before sunset.

The flight was incredible. We sailed for 25 minutes, launching from Baldy’s summit and heading west while we gained another 1,000 feet of altitude, and then turned and came back across the mountain at 10,000 feet and slowly began descending into Sun Valley, making a series of lazy circles before landing in a large field just outside of Ketchum. I was able to take many pictures on my iPhone (permissible, but I was warned that several phones had been dropped, never to be seen again) and even shoot a video. The experience was wonderful—a great perspective to see a beautiful part of America.

Beautiful, indeed. Here’s Graham’s shot looking into the Sawtooth Wilderness, with the resort town of Sun Valley in the foreground:

I just came off a two-week vacation that included six days at Burning Man—the art-infused, music-filled, drug-fueled festival held every year in the desolate Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada. (This satirical video of a guy coming back from BM has a lot of truth to it, and this tumblr of Burner mockery is also pretty brilliant.) The 30th Burn attracted more than 70,000 people to this pop-up, semi-circle city:

By Jim Urquhart / Reuters. (My camp was right next to that fluorescent orange one in the middle right, the latter called “Comfort & Joy.”) More photos of Burning Man 2016 are compiled here by Alan Taylor.

But I could barely see Black Rock City myself during the short flight from Reno due to one of the sudden dust storms that are all too frequent in that desert. (I might have missed the dusty deluge if I hadn’t been delayed at the Reno airport for several hours because President Obama was in nearby Tahoe for an environmental summit and Air Force One was on the tarmac freezing flights … Thanks, Obama!) So instead of getting an aerial photo similar to the one above, all I got was this dust-shrouded scene:

Jimmy Rollison

Here’s another beauty from Jimmy Rollison, one of the top contributors to this series (with views over the Continental Divide, Monument Valley and Lake Powell, Dinosaur National Monument, and the rolling hills of northern California):

How to start a Monday: Southbound at 10,500’ looking west, en route home from Hood River, Oregon, from a large antique airplane get-together once a year. As the song says: “Nothing but blue skies do I see.”

The lake—the deepest one in the U.S.—formed around 7,700 years ago when Mt. Mazama collapsed after a massive volcanic eruption, one that was 42 times greater than Mount St. Helens in 1980. The resulting caldera is what you see above (and in this Orbital View). Rain and snowfall fills the caldera, and no rivers flow into or out of Crater Lake, so it takes about 250 years for the total amount of water to cycle out.

A 33-mile road, Rim Drive, wraps around the lake, and my first long bike ride happened to be around it, in the summer of 2010. The gorgeous locale and sunny weather of that day was only dampened by the timing of the ride—just a month after my brother got into a terrible bike accident in Portland that resulted in several broken teeth and nearly a broken neck. His bashed-up face loomed in my head as I raced down Rim Drive to catch up with the more experienced cyclists. Every tiny rock on the road felt like a speed bump, and my clenched hands were sorer than my legs by the end of the ride. But my brother is braver than I am; he was back to his long bike commutes in no time.

We’re down to the final stretch of U.S. states in this series, so if you happen to have an aerial view above CT, GA, IA, ME, MS, NM, ND, RI, VT, or WV, please send it our way.

Christopher Baker

I wrote a post yesterday about the wildfire raging along California’s Big Sur coast that has surpassed the $200 million-mark to combat—and it’s only two-thirds contained. A reader in California, Christopher Baker, saw the fire when it started two months ago. He writes:

I saw your article and thought you’d find interesting the enclosed photo I took out the window of a Southwest flight on the evening of July 23 flying north from San Diego to San Francisco. It was extremely clear and I saw what I think is the first day of the fire out the window. The fire was very bright but still somewhat small, and I think I could see backfires started by the firefighters. It’s a remarkable sight because during my 50 years in California I’ve seen many brushfires from the air but never was the view this clear; normally they are obscured by the smoke.

At its peak last month, more than 5,600 firefighters were working to put out the blaze. It’s destroyed 57 homes and threatens another 400. And all of this because someone left a small campfire burning while visiting Garrapata State Park.

Cindy Wasilewski

Ray Wasilewski of Clive, Iowa, sends a perfectly framed photo that his wife recently took from the passenger seat of the plane he was flying:

In August, Iowa begins to change. We still have the beautiful green from the crops that thrive in our soil, while colors are beginning to change as we approach harvest. In this picture taken near Mason City, Iowa, you can see much of what it means to live in America’s heartland. The pride of the people who care for the land jumps out at you. Large farm equipment stands at the ready, and the classic car near the Quonset hut barn makes it easy to believe you are viewing a scene from the past. Seeing this perspective, both the history and the new growth, is a special feeling.

The farm has an aviation connection: In 2000, the Mason City Airport was planning an expansion, and the location of this farm—not far off the end of one of the runways (you can see one runway at the top-left of the photo)—meant it would need to go. But people fought back, and 16 years later the farm is still there. As a pilot, I’m a big supporter of airports, but I’m happy to have this view when landing at that great airport.

With their fantastic photo, Ray and Cindy also cross Iowa off our list of 50 states to cover for America by Air. We’re now down to single digits—CT, GA, ME, MS, NM, ND, RI, VT, WV—so if you have a great aerial view from one of those states, please send our way.

We’ve got a great little tangent going within America by Air of photos above power plants—first a nuclear one over Michigan, then a wind-powered plant over Colorado, then a solar-powered plant in Arizona. The reader who sent the latter one, Adam Feiges, delivers again:

Adam Feiges

You requested a coal-fired power plant and here you get two for the price of one: the South and North units of the George Neal Power Complex located in rural Woodbury County in western Iowa. These generating stations power a considerable portion of the agricultural economy in the heart of the Corn Belt, and they’ve survived flooding, explosions, tornados, and consent decrees.

In the foreground of the shot is Browns Lake, an ox-bow lake marking a vestigial course of the Missouri River that today flows in a man-made channel barely visible on the far side of the two power plants. The influence of human activity on the landscape represented in this photo is all encompassing: the course of a major river, the massive piles of Wyoming coal, the forest cover on the Nebraska hills in the background, the massive industrial complexes, and the farm fields that cover most of the ground are all anthropocentric artifacts. Only the ox-box lake and the wetlands on the interior of the loop are remnants of the natural world, and even they are heavily influenced by the power plants since they are part of the water management process that cools the outflow from the facilities.

What’s next in this sub-series of power plants—a hydroelectric dam perhaps? Drop us a note if you have any good ones to share:

John Matthews

A reader sends a shot above Fiesta Texas, the Six Flags amusement park in San Antonio (and one that would drive the bigoted Eric Cartman crazy):

From the air you can see the giant Texas-shaped wave pool and the massive parking lot. The photo was taken by me, John Matthews, from about 3500 feet MSL [mean sea level] from a friend’s Mooney [a type of single-engine plane].

I spent part of my early childhood in Stuttgart, Germany, where my mom was stationed with the U.S. Army, and some of my fondest memories were of the waterparks big in that area. The waterslides were much faster and more fun than the ones I’d seen in the States, and for the first time I experienced what a massive wave pool was like. A cursory history of wave pools suggests that my first encounter with one in Germany wasn’t a coincidence:

Wave pools go as far back as the 19th Century, as famous fantasy castle builder Ludwig II of Bavaria electrified a lake to create breaking waves. The first [swimmable] wave pool was designed and built in 1927 [1] in Budapest, Hungary, and appeared in a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer documentary about the city in 1938, as one of the main tourist attractions.[2] Palisades Amusement Park [in NJ] had a salt-water wave pool during the 1940s. This was a huge pool whose waves were generated by a waterfall at one end. The pool in Point Mallard Park [in Decatur, AL] was developed in the early 1970s after Mayor Gilmer Blackburn saw enclosed “wave-making” swimming pools in Germany and thought one could be a tourist attraction in the U.S.

There’s also a fantastic video on YouTube purportedly shot in 1929 showing a wave pool in Munich (“This is the new kind of swimming bath that is becoming the rage of Germany,” the opening card reads):

As far as present-day superlatives, Siam Park City Water Park in Thailand is home to the world’s largest wave pool (video here) and the similarly named Siam Park (Tenerife) in Spain produces the largest waves—nearly ten feet tall (video here).

Graham W. Hankey

Graham Hankey, a reader who previously paraglided over Idaho, sends a lovely shot of Mt. Hood, looking so close you could step out onto the summit—which in fact he did:

I fly into Portland frequently, and Hood is always impressive when the weather is clear. The mountain is a sentinel watching over the Columbia River Valley. This day in July 2016 was very cloudy, and I expected no views. But the undercast cracked just enough to reveal the upper slopes and summit of the 11,250-foot mountain.

It was a good omen to see the mountain, as I planned to climb it a week later. My climb was successful; I enjoyed splendid visibility and reached the summit at 6:15 a.m. after a five-hour slog up the south-side climbing route, accessing the summit ridge via the Old Chute. Climbers try to get up and down before the sun warms the ice too much and produces ice and rock falls. Once on top, I was just a little lower than my Jet Blue photography platform of a week earlier.