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: A Peak Through the Clouds

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.  

Our list of power plants continues to grow: a nuclear one over Michigan, a bunch of wind turbines over Colorado, some solar panels with crop circles in Arizona, a pair of coal-fired plants in Iowa … and now another nuclear one, this time on the California coast (followed by a bonus AbA photo from a new state—Maine!):

Dan Terzian

Here’s the Pacific Gas & Electric nuclear reactor at Diablo Canyon, near Avila Beach, California. The picture was taken from the front seat of a Pitts Special biplane. The Diablo Canyon plant has churned out energy for the state of California for over 30 years but may finally succumb to requests for its closure from environment groups.

Not if local Ellie Ripley can help it. From her letter to the editor of The San Luis Obispo Tribune:

For 40 years, the anti-nuclear groups have been spouting off about how unsafe, poorly designed and outdated Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is. Where are their credentials? Have they had any training, any experience in nuclear? Clearly they have not. They make their claims without any truth-based facts.

Diablo Canyon has been producing power for more than 30 years that has proven safe, clean, affordable and reliable. Shutting down Diablo Canyon would be trading 2,250 megawatts of clean, nonpolluting energy to substitute it with fossil fuel which will be needed to back up intermittent renewable energy. Where is the sense in that?

Another Tribune reader looks at the cost factor:

[R]eplacing Diablo Canyon requires 14 500-megawatt solar farms. Solar farms like the Topaz facility take three years to build and cost about $2.4 billion each. Building two a year it would take seven-plus years, 133 square miles of land and cost $33.6 billion. Guess who pays the $33.6 billion!

Circling back to wind turbines, here’s an AbA submission from a reader flying above “Vinal Haven Island, Maine, on the way to and back from Portland”:

Doug Magruder

With Maine now checked off the list of states we’ve covered in America by Air, only eight remain: Connecticut, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia. Do you happen to have a good photo above one of those states? We’d love to post it: hello@theatlantic.com.

… the political storm of Election Day, that is, and the calm of this serene sunset reflecting off the Mississippi River over Hastings, Minnesota:

Pete Howell

Another reader, Peter in Vermont, explains why U.S. politics right now should be more like the aviation industry:

Thank you to James Fallows for his Trump Time Capsule on “the destruction of norms.” Through his knowledge of aviation issues he may have heard of the term the “normalization of deviance.” It is a term used in the analysis of safety issues, both in aviation and in the large field of safety (including trying to apply it to medicine).

The concept is that people work under rules that have been established for proper practice, and that over time people start ignoring those rules out of short-term expediency. The problem then is that to the psychology of the people doing it, those deviations from the rules become the new normal. There is then a mental incapacity to see deviations as deviations, and a mental inertial against doing the extra work required to follow the proper rules. Once “everybody knows” that the speed limit sign on a certain street can be ignored, then it doesn’t seem right or natural to follow it.

The point in the safety community in coining the phrase is to start the conversation about how it can be corrected. When the powers on top believe in following the rules, and the deviations are only being done by those on the bottom, then arguably you can just come down like a ton of bricks on those not following the rules. The real problem, however, is when the deviations are inherent in the power structure itself.

I hate to always be harping on it, but it is documented by those studying it that preventable medical mistakes kill over 400,000 Americans each year, at an estimated cost of at least one trillion dollars a year. The root cause of the problem is that the hospitals and the doctors don’t want to measure the mistakes, because all they want to measure are the benefits of the current state of affairs. By not measuring the “deviation,” the deviation doesn’t exist, so no one sees a problem.

The aviation industry, on the other hand, is famously safety conscious and has an amazing safety record.

Adam Feiges

Adam Feiges sends a stunning, lambent view of Chicago’s grid system at night on his approach to O’Hare from the east:

The Interstate 90/94 split is visible in the bottom of the frame with the Kennedy Expressway curving to the left as it heads “inbound” towards the Loop. (Chicagoans have adopted the inbound/outbound dichotomy due to the fact that both interstates are East/West routes that are actually oriented north/south as they cross the metro area.) The grid system imposed by the Northwest Ordinance is on full display here.  The brighter roads follow the old section lines which divided the land up into square miles of 640 acres. These units were further subdivided into ¼ sections of 160 acres apiece. This was deemed to be a reasonable size that an individual family could farm and make a living.  The super bright road in the middle of the frame is Cicero Ave, which extends 35 miles to the south before it reaches open farmland.

Kaye Richey

A reader sends an autumnal view over Pennsylvania:

Here’s a shot of Point State Park at the Forks of the Ohio River. I shot it on October 12, 2016, at 3:37 PM on Delta Flight 869 from Atlanta to Pittsburgh as the plane was on its approach to the Pittsburgh airport. Alas, the Pirates were not in the playoffs.

The team placed 3rd in its division this year, with a 78–83-1 record. Here’s a bit about the park across the water from the ballpark:

The fountain in Point State Park, which sprays water up to 150 feet (46 m) in the air at the head of the Ohio River, draws upon water from an aquifer that passes beneath the park known as the “Wisconsin Glacial Flow,” an ancient river channel now filled with sand and gravel as a result of the Pleistocene glaciation and the consequent re-routing of Pittsburgh’s rivers.

Bill Barse has been one of the main contributors to our aerial series, namely with his tours of Appalachia from the air and an archeological site in Florida. This time he provides a glimpse of a historic airfield in southern Florida. Regarding the photo above, Bill writes:

Coming in low to land at Airglades Airport in Clewiston, Florida, I noticed my plane’s shadow flying in tandem with me. I took a photo because it’s rare that I’ve flown in tandem with my shadow. It actually took me quite by surprise!

It seems like the entire past year has been one of chasing shadows—multiple shadows and to what end.

This second photo shows another shadow, but only if you know where to look. It’s a view of Airglades Airport, which used to be BFTS #5 (British Flying Training School #5) established in 1942 to train British RAF pilots to fight in WWII. Records suggest that about 1,700 cadets did their primary flight training at BFTS #5 before going back to Britain to fight in the war.

There is a trace of one of the old runways—a shadow, to wit—that I used frequently, since it was nothing more than a grass strip that once ran beyond the current paved runway. It’s perfect for the tail-wheel Aeronca. You can see it as a faint shadowy line with brushy vegetation at both ends, to the left and right. The old grass strip once crossed the end of the current paved runway. I called it RAF Clewiston when I was working there. It is an archeological remnant of earlier times.

And wait! As I stare again at the clear shadow of the tail feathers of my plane, I see what could be a head, and a leg dangling below the vertical fin! Well, notions of ghosts aside, perhaps it could be seen as the shadowy wraith of an RAF cadet, riding along with me looking for the nostalgia of earlier times, and staring at the shadowy trace of the field he once trained at.

Our collection of power plants for this photo series keeps growing: a nuclear one over Michigan, another one along the Cali coastline, a bunch of wind turbines over Colorado, a pair of coal-fired plants in Iowa, solar panels with crop circles in Arizona—and now a massive solar plant in Nevada that looks like a moon base or a SETI satellite:

Roberto T. Martins

The stunning image was sent by Roberto, a reader in Georgia:

This is the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy project, in the Nevada desert, as seen on a flight from Denver to San Francisco last November. I had just heard about it on NPR when I saw it right under our flight path. (If I hadn’t listened, I would have no idea what it was.)

Here’s the NPR story that he’s likely referencing. It provides some fascinating details into the unique nature of the Crescent Dunes solar plant, which can generate electricity for up to 10 hours even after the sun goes down. What’s the secret? Molten salt:

“It actually looks like water. It’s clear — it flows like water,” Smith says. He says the molten salt has to remain above 450 degrees Fahrenheit to stay liquid. It’s sent up the tower to the glowing tip, where it’s heated further. When the salt comes back down, it is 1,050 degrees. The molten salt is used to make steam to power a generator.

Here’s a closer view of the plant from Roberto, with the central tower casting a sundial-like shadow across the desert floor:

The plant generates enough electricity to power 75,000 Nevada homes. But it’s had some blemishes: “During a test [of Crescent Dunes last year], observers recorded a video of birds flying into heat from the mirrors and being incinerated.” The group Basin and Range Watch is now suing the agency to get more information on the dangers to wildlife. But flaming fowl isn’t unique to Crescent Dunes; the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California is another example of a broader problem for solar plants. Here’s an explanation from Emma Roller via our archives:

First, insects are drawn to the reflective light of the solar mirrors. That draws small, insect-eating birds, which in turn draw larger predatory birds. The rays of the mirrors’ reflected light produces temperatures from 800 degrees to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Any animal caught in the intense glare of the mirror’s rays may catch fire and plummet toward the ground, or spontaneously combust altogether.

That beam of fiery death is called a “solar flux.” The bigger threat to birds, however, comes from wind turbines. As my colleague Clare Foran noted, “Research published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Biological Conservation [in 2013] estimated that between 140,438 and 327,586 birds — or a mean of 234,012 — are killed annually due to collisions with turbines across the U.S.” Petroleum is another big danger: