One Small Thing That Makes Air Travel So Much Better

Like so many of us, I don’t particularly like flying. At best, it’s a necessary evil made bearable with a novel, a glass of wine, and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. At worst, it’s utter misery, as evidenced by stories like these.

But, really, when you think about it, flying is actually pretty amazing. Remember Louis C. K.’s epic rant? “You’re sitting in a chair in the sky,” he exclaims. Indeed, we are many miles in the air, traveling to another state, another country, or halfway around the world in mere hours. And we get to see some amazing things from up there. I’m always surprised when people in the window seat draw the shade, never to open it again. Why miss out on the sunrises and sunsets? The landscape of the place you’re leaving or the place you’re going?

One of my favorite things is to fly in and out of my hometown of Charlottesville. One flight path takes you right over Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Once, I was able to find my house. Sometimes, I try to pick out certain mansions that I know only by their imposing gates and fancy-schmancy names. For the few minutes it takes to take off or land, I am both creeping on and savoring my town with every ounce of my being.

But many times, I don’t know much about the places I’m traveling in and out of. Or flying over. So, the experience is made so much more interesting and meaningful when I’m told what the heck I’m looking at.

Where was this? Wish I’d known!

I recently flew from Fresno to Phoenix on a cloudless day at a fairly low altitude. For much of the flight, what I saw out the window was otherworldly. Brown and barren yet incredibly dramatic, with very few roads. But every so often, I’d see a lone house, or something vaguely industrial, or something that might qualify as a town in the middle of all the nothingness. What was it? Where was I? I guessed Nevada or very eastern California, but I would have loved to have known for sure.

Yesterday, on the other hand, I flew from Charlotte to L.A., and before we even took off, the pilot told us, “Today we’ll be flying over the Great Smoky Mountains (where we might hit a couple of bumps), then into Kansas (just south of Wichita), then over the southern part of Colorado, where you’ll start to see the Rockies. Those on the left will see the Grand Canyon as we get closer to the end of the flight.”

I count three natural wonders in that announcement (four if you count Wichita). Three chances to glimpse what people center entire vacations around, in the space of five hours. Given this, should we be so quick to conclude that flying sucks?

The Grand Canyon

As a further courtesy, this pilot (who I’ve decided loves his job and is just all-around awesome) would pop onto the P.A. every now and then to tell us to look out the window. “Those on the right can see Lake Tahoe right now, and those on the left can see the Grand Canyon,” he said, pulling my eye from my novel to the landscape below. A bit later, he was back: “Right now, those on the left will see Palm Springs and the Salton Sea,” he said, as we started our descent into LAX. I have to go to Palm Springs in a few days, so it was especially interesting to glimpse it from above, and I was grateful to be oriented to where we were.

If I had my way, these announcements would be a requirement on every flight (those lucky souls who can sleep on planes may disagree with me).

Is your pilot not sharing? Then maybe you’re lucky enough to have a built-in seat screen with a map option, so you can click away from your 25th viewing of The Notebook for quick checks of where you are in time and space. I recently had one of these on a SAS flight to Copenhagen, and even though much of the flight was spent over the Atlantic, way too high up to see anything, it still added to my experience to be able to tell myself, “Wow, I’m flying over Newfoundland right now.”

Even better: there’s a new app called Flyover Country, which uses GPS technology (not wi-fi) to tell you exactly what you’re flying over. It also links to related Wikipedia articles if you want to learn more. You need to be at a relatively low altitude and cloud cover must be minimal, of course, for you to be able to see and for the app to function optimally, but still – very cool. I hope to try it out on my way home next weekend!

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