Patrick Smith, a pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential, reveals the most memorable sights from the sky.
On a typical 747 with four hundred passengers, a mere quarter of them will be lucky enough, if that’s the correct word, to be stationed at a window. In a ten-abreast block, only two of those seats come with a view. If flying has lost the ability to touch our hearts and minds, perhaps that’s part of the reason: there’s nothing to see anymore.
There’s something instinctively comforting about sitting at the window – a desire for orientation. Which way am I going? Has the sun risen or set yet? For lovers of air travel, of course, it’s more than that. To this day, the window is always my preference, even on the longest and most crowded flight. What I observe through the glass is no less a sensory moment, potentially, than what I’ll experience sightseeing later on. Traveling to Istanbul, for instance, I remember the sight of the ship-clogged Bosporus from 10,000 feet as vividly as I remember standing before the Süleymaniye Mosque or the Hagia Sofia.
For pilots, obviously, there isn’t much choice. We spend hours in what is essentially a small room walled with glass. Cockpit windows are surprisingly large, and although there’s often little to see except fuzzy gray cirrus or pitch – blackness, the panorama they provide is occasionally spectacular.
New York City
The arrival patterns into LaGuardia will sometimes take you along the Hudson River at low altitude, skirting the western edge of Manhattan and offering a breathtaking vista of the New York skyline – that “quartz porcupine,” as Vonnegut termed it.
Shooting stars (especially during the annual, late-summer Perseids meteor shower)
Most impressive are the ones that linger on the horizon for several seconds, changing color as they burrow into the atmosphere. I’ve seen shooting stars so bright they were visible even in daylight.
The Northern Lights
At its most vivid, the aurora borealis has to be seen to be believed. And you needn’t traipse to the Yukon or Siberia; the most dazzling display I’ve ever witnessed was on a flight between Detroit and New York. The heavens had become an immense, quivering, horizon–wide curtain of fluorescence, like God’s laundry flapping in the night sky.
Flying into Africa
I love the way the Cap Vert peninsula and the city of Dakar appear on the radar screen, perfectly contoured like some great rocky fishhook – the westernmost tip of the continent, and the sense of arrival and discovery it evokes. There it is, Africa! And further inland, the topography of Mali and Niger. From 30,000 feet, the scrubby Sahel looks exactly like 40-grade sandpaper, sprayed lightly green and spattered with villages – each a tiny star with red clay roads radiating outward.
The eerie, flickering orange glow of the Venezuelan oil fields — an apocalyptic vista that makes you feel like a B-17 pilot in 1945.
Similar, but more depressing, are the thousands of slash-and-burn fires you’ll see burning throughout the Amazon. Some of the fire fronts are miles long – walls of red flame chewing through the forests.
Compensating for the above are the vast, for-now untouched forests of Northeastern South America. Over Guyana in particular the view is like nothing else in the world – an expanse of primeval green as far as the eye can see. No towns, no roads, no clear-cutting or fires. For now.
Climbing out over the “tablecloth” – the cloud deck that routinely drapes itself over Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa.
The frozen, midwinter oblivion of Northeastern Canada. I love passing over the jaggedy, end-of-the-world remoteness of Newfoundland, Labrador, and Northern Quebec in midwinter – a gale-thrashed nether-region of boulders, forests, and frozen black rivers.
The majestic, primordial nothingness of Greenland. The great circle routes between the United States and Europe will sometimes take you over Greenland. It might be just a brush of the southern tip, but other times it’s forty-five minutes across the meatier vistas of the interior. If you’ve got a window seat, do not miss the opportunity to steal a peek, even if it means splashing your fast-asleep seatmate with sunshine.
Other views aren’t spectacle so much as just peculiar…
One afternoon we were coasting in from Europe, about 200 miles east of Halifax, Nova Scotia. “Gander Center,” I called in. “Got time for a question?”
“Yeah, go ahead.”
“Do you have any idea what the name of that strange little island is that we just passed over?”
“Sure do,” said the man in Gander. “That’s Sable Island.”
Sable Island is one of the oddest places I’ve ever seen from aloft. The oceans are full of remote islands, but Sable’s precarious isolation makes it especially peculiar. It’s a tiny, ribbony crescent of sand, almost Bahamian in shape and texture, all alone against the relentless North Atlantic. It’s like a fragment of a submerged archipelago—-a miniature island that has lost its friends.
“Island,” maybe, is being generous. Sable is really nothing more than a sand bar, a sinewy splinter of dunes and grass – 26 miles long and only a mile wide – lashed and scraped by surf and wind. How staggeringly vulnerable it appears from 38,000 feet.
I’d flown over Sable many times and had been meaning to ask about it. Only later did I learn that the place has been “the subject of extensive scientific research,” according to one website, “and of numerous documentary films, books, and magazine articles.” Most famously, it’s the home of 250 or so wild horses. Horses have been on Sable since the late eighteenth century, surviving on grass and fresh water ponds. Transient visitors include grey seals and up to 300 species of birds. Human access is tightly restricted. The only permanent dwelling is a scientific research station staffed by a handful of people.
But all right, okay, enough with the terrestrial stuff. I know that some of you are wondering about UFOs. This is something I’m asked about all the time. For the record, I have never seen one, and I have never met another pilot who claims to have seen one. Honestly, the topic is one that almost never comes up, even during those long, dark flights across the ocean. Musings about the vastness of the universe are one thing, but I cannot recall ever having had a conversation with a colleague about UFOs specifically. Neither have I seen the topic discussed in any industry journal or trade publication.
I once received an email asking me about a supposed “tacit agreement” between pilots that says we will not openly discuss UFO sightings out of fear of embarrassment and, as the emailer put it, “possible career suicide.” I had to laugh at the notion of there being a tacit agreement among pilots over anything, let alone flying saucers. And although plenty of things in aviation are tantamount to career suicide, withholding information about UFOs isn’t one of them.
In 2011, a poll by the website PrivateFly.com revealed travellers’ favourite airports to land at. Barra Island in the Outer Hebrides – with its unique beach runway – came out on top.
London City Airport (pictured), Jackson Hole, Aruba, Male, St Barts, Queenstown, Gibraltar, Narvik and St Maarten completed the top 10.
Paro Airport, in the Himalayan country of Bhutan, is regularly named among the scariest airports to land at. It is located in a deep valley, and landing involves negotiating a series of mountains, rapid descents and then a steep bank to the left. Only a handful of pilots are certified to land there.
Other scary touch-downs include Matekane in Lesotho, Saba in the Caribbean, Tenzing-Hillary airport in Lukla, Nepal, Funchal in Madeira, and Courchevel.
source::::Patrick Smith in The Telegraph …UK