Sign Up for Our Newsletter


Open Space

Flying Blind
The view from the air puts it all in perspective.

It was a late-afternoon departure from JFK to LAX that would have us flying into the sunset. As it turned out, I had an aisle seat. But I knew I could still lean over enough to catch some sight of the expanses below. And I imagined that most of the people on the plane—families and tourists coming and going for the holidays—would be looking out to enjoy the scenes as well. But on takeoff all the shades went down, plunging the cabin into darkness. The passengers put on their headphones, plugged into the screens on the seat backs in front of them, and remained thus entranced for the next six hours, tuned into the flashing two-dimensional world of TV and movies. Others preferred their iPhones.

I felt as if I were in a flying tomb or part of a sensory deprivation experiment. How could all these people have so little interest in viewing the landscape from 30,000 feet? Could they really not care what was out there? After all, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote back in 1939, “The airplane has revealed for us the true face of the earth.”

No matter how often I fly, when I look out, my forehead pressed against the window’s upper edge, I’m always amazed at how flat the flatlands are, how gnarly the canyons, and how spectacular the shimmering mountain snows. I’m amazed to fly through rising cumulus and to track the shadows of drifting cirrus. If the skies are clear, they give me a chance to review the places that over the years I’ve traveled by road or on foot and make me realize just how many places I still want to see.

The view from the air puts the landscape in perspective. Amelia Earhart once said, “You haven’t seen a tree until you’ve seen its shadow from the sky.” I would say you haven’t seen a river until you’ve tracked its meanderings from the sky. A cross-country flight can make real what one has only read about: John McPhee’s basin and range, Ed Abbey’s red-rock canyonlands, John Wesley Powell’s Colorado River. From 30,000 feet the lessons of geology and natural history are evident. One can appreciate the vastness of the terrain over which the pioneers persevered on their way westward, marvel at the massive reservoirs and the irrigation circles that green miles of the plains. One can also wonder at the dubious ambitions that left behind bone-dry salt lakes, abandoned agricultural fields, mined mountaintops, the cross-hatchings of oil and gas exploration roads, the plumes of forest fires, the spread of desert cities with their mazes of subdivisions, the sprawl of Los Angeles, which looks from the sky like a landscape of gigantic circuit boards.

This winter I was particularly eager to get a look at what I’d seen only on the news—the frozen expanses of the northern Midwest, the drought-stricken West, the diminished snowpack in the Rockies. But with the plane in darkness I had no chance to see anything at all. If it were overcast I would have been happier, since I could say I wasn’t missing the view. But when I walked back to the flight attendants’ station to peer out the small exit-door windows I could see that the skies were clear.

As the hours passed I found myself checking our progress on the screen map, trying to picture what the scene below would look like. I imagined the looping rivers as we crossed the plains, the mountains on the northern horizon. Passing over Grand Junction and following Route 50 west toward Moab, in my mind’s eye I looked down over the Great Basin with its treeless plateaus and the wondrous fractal topologies of their eroded escarpments.

But everyone else sat in darkness, occupied by their screens. (I had a glimmer of light—and hope—when the young woman in the window seat in my row opened the shade a bit to look out, but she quickly shut it when she caught a look from the woman seated between us.) These days we’re able to be in our own world wherever we go, because we can carry it with us. But it’s too bad if it allows us, when there’s so much to be seen, to remain otherwise in darkness.


Like this article? Donate to NRDC to support OnEarth's groundbreaking nonprofit journalism.

image of Bruce Stutz

Bruce Stutz, former editor-in-chief of Natural History, became a contributing editor to OnEarth in the fall of 2004. He is the author of Chasing Spring: An American Journey Through a Changing Season (Scribner).

Comments (10)
Reader comments are moderated and may be edited or deleted if they violate our rules for civil discourse.
All comments offered in the spirit of civil discourse are welcome. Commercial spam, obscenity, and other rude behavior are not and will be removed. Due to our nonprofit status, we are also required to delete any express or implied statement endorsing or opposing any political party or candidate for political office. Valid email addresses are required. (OnEarth respects your privacy and will not use, lend, or sell your email address for any reason.)
Amen. I say that as an appreciator of red-rock canyonlands and Colorado River, and one who will be in the Great Basin on Sunday. And as an appreciator of the energy extraction that allows planes to fly 30,000 feet above the fruited plains and the flatlands and the canyons and the reservoirs and irrigation circles.
So hoping to see a picture of the tar sands instead leaves me a flickr picture that isn't and a article as cute as the writers plane ride.
Whenever I fly, I sit in the very front or very back so the wing doesn't block the view. Then I choose which side I sit on according to sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset, position of the moon and planets, terrain, etc - whatever is appropriate for the route and time of day. For example: Boston to Amsterdam to Arusha and back: Left, Right, Right, Right.
Once, on a flight back from Morocco, the plane I was flying on had cameras mounted outside. It was fantastic to finally see all those sights you normally miss because of the tiny airplane windows. It felt like we were finally getting to see the world as a pilot must see it every day. I was so jealous after that and always try to sit near a window when at all possible. Unfortunately, they shut all the cameras off as the the plane prepared to land. I commented to the crew after the flight that I really loved the cameras. They said that they were an experiment but that they had to turn them off for landing because people complained. Shame cos that was the part I was looking forward to the most. Gimme bigger windows and more outside cameras! I may be afraid of heights but I prefer to see reality than the scenarios I can picture in my head based on the movements of the plane. Thanks for this article.
Bruce Stutz said it well: not only are his fellow passengers missing a fairytale lesson in geography but also they are strengthening their little bubble of "me," which inevitably will undermine our society because no one will know or care about other places, other people.
That's why I always book the window seat.
That's what happened last time I flew from Logan to SFO, the shades went down right away. Makes no sense whatsoever. I love it when the captain(s) point out landscape features, and sometimes even bank the plane for a better view.
So true, and I find myself guilty as charged, rarely stopping to smell the roses, even from 30,000 feet when my phone isn't ringing, text messages aren't coming in, and emails are hours from showing up. As I read this I found myself thinking, we will continue flying blind unless at the beginning of our flight we are shown this Spaceship Earth Passenger Safety Briefing! Dave Gardner Director of the documentary GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth
Yes! My thoughts exactly. Recently I had the privilege of flying over the Amazon basin and the same thing happened -- wondrous landscape below, but everyone else I could see was watching a movie or on a device. I wonder what would happen if more people cared to look and appreciate all that beauty (that is at risk from many threats). Pilots used to come on and point out natural features and cities below. Rarely does that happen anymore. Why?
In late January I was flying over Indonesia en route from Papua New Guinea to the Philippines. As we passed endless jungles and twisting rivers, there was a PA announcement: Please lower the window screens so that passengers have a better view of the in-flight movie, Twilight: Breaking Dawn part II.