Spotted from an Airplane

I have never understood people who tell me they hate to fly.  Seriously people, we fly through the air! Do you realize that for a million years your ancestors have longed to do it and you are among the first lucky generations where you can?  I don’t know what is more incredible, the fact that I get to do it or the fact that it’s so routine everyone around me seems completely nonplussed about the situation.

My favorite thing about flying after the takeoff and landing excitement is spotting things though is the window of an airplane- I am firmly in the “window” category in the aisle-vs-window debate, because how can you possibly want to fly above all these mysterious places and not even look down at them?!  Like these glaciers in Greenland I spotted once flying from Doha, Qatar to Washington DC-

Beyond sightseeing there’s a lot of astronomy stuff to be spotted from an airplane as well- for starters I’ve never been to the Arctic or Antarctic Circles to see the summertime “white nights” when the sun doesn’t go down, but did fly from America-Europe once around the summer solstice and was infinitely entertained with how the sun never set that night (well except a few minutes during which you could see the glow of the sun moving backwards to the sunrise position).  The mapmakers weren’t lying to us in elementary school!

If you’re not going trans-Atlantic though here’s my favorite airplane astronomy phenomenon, spotted last week while flying back from Atlanta to Cleveland-

Another picture- alas this time I wasn’t in the window seat so I needed to coordinate snaps carefully so the lady sitting next to me didn’t start to wonder too much-

This, ladies and gentlemen, is an optical phenomenon known as the glory because it looks suspiciously like a saint’s halo.  They happen exactly opposite the sun when backscattered light from a cloud of water droplets returns to an observer in between the glory and the sun.  And because there aren’t many opportunities to find yourself between the sun and a bunch of water vapor unless you’re up in the sky, airplanes are a pretty good place to spot one of these!

What you do is grab a seat on the plane opposite of where the sun will be (for example, you should sit on the right on a NYC- Los Angeles flight) then keep an eye out during takeoff and landing, especially just above the clouds!  If you’re lucky you’ll see a ghostly halo with perhaps even the shadow of the airplane in the middle of it, though it gets harder and harder to spot the further up you climb. (I took the pictures above in part because it was perhaps the biggest, brightest glory I’d ever seen thanks to a rapidly setting sun- you could tell my half of the plane was very confused by what they were seeing.) However cool it looks though, I urge you to not turn to the person sitting next to you with a smile and exclaim “I see the glory!”

As a final little window seat tidbit before you begin wondering whether your airline is too cheap to give out complimentary beverages or not, here’s another little trick: how can you tell how far away the horizon is?  Well it turns out the answer is as easy as one two three!  Seriously, you take the cruising altitude the pilot announces, say 36,000 feet, take its square root and multiply it by 1.23 for your answer, which here would be 230 miles.  Pretty simple math these days when I guarantee you have a gadget on you at all times that has a calculator included, such as your iPod or cell phone. (Though before anyone asks it’s a different formula for kilometers of course, but even international airlines will fly at an altitude measured in feet because the standard never updated.)

So hey perhaps I’m a bit of a romantic, but what I think I love most about airline travel is realizing how just a little over a hundred years if I told someone I could, say, fly across the country in a few hours while watching a movie, using a palm-sized device that plays my music and can do calculations for me, and eating something claiming to be food they would laugh and tell me it’s magic.  But it isn’t!  It makes me wonder what sort of “magic” my descendants will enjoy in another hundred years form now.

2 responses to “Spotted from an Airplane

  1. Some grammar Nazi

    “Nonplussed” does not mean what you think it means, no matter how many people misuse it.

    Sorry, just doing my job 🙂

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