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.)

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America by Air: Chicago’s Glowing Grid

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: