Flight Observation

Last week’s paean to windows and views brought another round of first-hand accounts to my inbox: A star-dappled midnight skyscape over Africa; a breathtaking landing at Lukla, Nepal, in a Twin-Otter; the Grand Canyon from a 707 as the pilot made a circle so everyone could see. One reader, who asks that his age be neither revealed nor (he hopes) construed, remembers low-level flights through the Andes on a Braniff DC-6.

My own panorama pantheon ranked views of New York City and Hong Kong at the top, though I wish I’d expanded the list. While the rules of this column banish the realm of noncommercial flying, I could have mentioned that Cessna ride I took over the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana — the sight of loping giraffes and elephants in the swamps and savannas below.

A reader from Arlington, Massachusetts, reminds us to keep watch for two easier-to-see but no less dramatic phenomenon: the aurora borealis and the iceberg fields of the North Atlantic. These I can vouch for, and flying between America and Europe you can often catch both in the same trip — the Northern Lights on the eastbound overnight leg, and bergs on the afternoon return. The aurora in its fullest glory — a quivering, horizon-wide curtain of fluorescence — has to be seen to be believed. And you needn’t traipse to the Yukon or Alaska; the most dazzling display I’ve ever witnessed was early one night between Detroit and New York. The heavens had come alive with immense, wavering sheets of color, as if god had hung his brightest laundry in the night sky.

With clear weather and in the proper season (think April and Titanic), you’ll sometimes see clusters of icebergs drifting in the North Atlantic, their crazily sculpted tops easily visible even from 30,000 feet. Chances are best on the most northerly patterns, close as possible to the southern tip of Greenland. This is usually around the time the crew has ordered down the window shades so people can sleep or watch movies, but check the moving map and try to sneak a glimpse.

Turning this around:

While the view from airplanes is prone to bring out the little kid in all of us, the view of airplanes is typically less celebrated.

Most airports, large or small, at one time or another featured observation decks. Among the more spectacular, if not the most well-known, was that of Boston’s Logan International — a 16th-floor platform slung between the enormous concrete legs of Logan’s 285-foot control tower. With floor-to-ceiling glass on two sides, the room boasted not only a dramatic vista of the runways and taxiways, but a sweeping panorama of the downtown skyline, harbor, and islands. It was an almost meditative space, dramatically poised yet oddly detached and quiet, insulated by its height and thick windows.

In the ’70s and ’80s, before the Massachusetts Port Authority bolted shut the doors in the name of security, passengers could rest here between flights. Kids and families from Winthrop, Revere, and East Boston came on the weekends, stuffing quarters into the mechanical binoculars, and even (I saw it) picnicking on the carpeted benches. In a way this corner of Logan clung to the fast-vanishing idea of an airport as public space. The deck wasn’t merely for itinerant flyers or planespotters, it was a destination for locals, like a park or a museum. In the ’40s and ’50s families drove to airport observatories for Sunday excursions. Logan’s 16th floor was a vestige of that spirit — a place of excitement and curiosity.

And it was free.

Residents of Hong Kong lived for years beneath Kai Tak airport’s famous “checkerboard” approach, bombarded by the whine of engines and the startling — perhaps disconcerting — sight of jetliners banked steeply overhead at arm’s reach from windows and balconies. Good riddance to the noise, I suppose, but when Kai Tak closed in 1998, hundreds of citizens lined the rooftops to watch the last of the incoming planes, shouting and applauding as the arrivals twirled past. “Animated, cheerful souls,” as described by a reporter from Time, “absolutely passionate about their beloved airport.” Undersized and dingy, Kai Tak was nonetheless one of the last major terminals to evoke a kind of civic pride, and it was the checkerboard’s constant reminder — the sound and sight of treetop-skimming planes — that people have come to sentimentalize.

Those who miss the thrill of Kai Tak still have some options. Spotters and gawkers can visit Maho Beach, for one, on the island of St. Maarten (St. Martin when speaking of its French half) in the Dutch Antilles. Here, along this otherwise small and rocky oceanfront, the threshold of Princess Juliana International Airport’s single runway extends nearly to the tide line. Judging from these pictures, which are not retouched in any way, you’d be advised to hit the sand to keep clear of jet blast and the swirling vortices from a 747’s wingtip. The beach is posted with signs warning swimmers and sunbathers of these very hazards.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.