Top Views from an Airplane

On a typical 747 with room for 400 passengers, a mere quarter of them will be lucky enough, if indeed that’s the operative word, to be stationed at a window. In a ten-abreast block, only two seats come with a view. If flying has lost the ability to touch our hearts and minds, perhaps that’s why: there’s nothing to see anymore.

My first airplane ride — an American Airlines 727 — was a hop from Boston to Washington in the spring of 1974. What I remember most clearly, even more than the double servings of sandwiches and cheesecake, is the view — Manhattan from 30,000 feet; the snaky brown marshlands of Chesapeake Bay; the landmarks of DC as we banked along the Potomac.

It’s a rite of passage, maybe, when we suddenly stop caring where we sit. For me there came a time when, checking in, it no longer struck me as blasphemous to hear the agent query, “window or aisle?” Prior to this moment, if my boarding card wasn’t suffixed with an A I was ready to cry.

There’s something instinctually comforting about sitting at the window — a desire for orientation. Which way am I going? Has the sun risen or set yet? For we 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 extends beyond the planeride to the journey in whole — no less a sensory moment, potentially, than what I might experience sightseeing later on. Flying to Istanbul, I remember the ship-clogged Bosporus from 10,000 feet as vividly as standing before the Blue Mosque or the Hagia Sofia.

Am I off? Here’s what a few of you had to say (I’ve edited for clarity and in some cases changed the tenses):

During takeoff, my toes curl with excitement. I always look out the window to see the houses, cars, and trees getting smaller and smaller. After the plane levels off, I’ll start reading, but every once in a while I’ll look out the window and check where I am with the map on the movie screen. Last January, on a flight from Buenos Aires to Madrid, I couldn’t sleep very well and so got the chance to see some specks of light off to the right side, which the map told me were cities on the west coast of Africa. Even now at twenty years old I still love the act of traveling more than the trip itself.
— Maria Fanucchi, Buenos Aires

I always notice the make of the plane I am flying, and the view outside. In recent years there have been some moments I’ll never forget. These make up for the long lines, short tempers, and squashed elbows: circling Alcatraz on approach to Oakland; passing the beautiful Spring Mountains on approach to Las Vegas; the San Diego skyline; the pampas of central Mexico at sunset; The beautiful blue beetle I watched crawl across an airport tarmac
— Pedro Vazquez, Las Vegas

I was on a flight from Cleveland back home to Madison and had my digital camera at the window the whole time. Passengers were giving me the usual annoyed looks because I actually enjoy flying and have the nerve to take pictures. Somewhere over Lake Michigan, the guy across the aisle taps me on the shoulder and says, “There’s a plane out my window if you want a good shot.” Then the other people dropped their books, opened their shades, and seemed to actually be actually looking.
— Patrick Weeden, Madison, Wisconsin

I was flying from Amsterdam to San Francisco. Over the North Atlantic, between the UK and Iceland, the sky cleared and I saw the blue. The bright, clear sky blue — same shade as the KLM livery. It was beautiful. I thought of your column’s challenge and smiled. (I also forgave KLM for using such a searing shade of blue for their attendants’ uniforms.)
— Laura La Gassa, San Francisco

When you approach Ft. Lauderdale, to the right you see that mess of sprawl and, to the left, the ocean. If you squint, you can imagine the Gulf Stream. You head along I-595 and make a U-turn east of the Everglades. I’m always relieved to be in my home swamp. I love to see my home swamp. I grew up hunting and fishing there, swimming in sloughs.
— Michelle [last name withheld], Kensington, MD

Last month I flew to Copenhagen. While the rest of the passengers slept with their window shades closed, I was mesmerized by the view: Iceland’s south coast at dawn. To have studied and practiced geology and archaeology all of my life and to finally see the island, was thrilling. Tough to be a grownup and not be able to run up and down the aisles shouting, “Wake up! Look outside!”
— Bonnie Bagley, Corrales, New Mexico

I had to chuckle at Ms. LaGassa’s reference to the preponderance of blue at KLM. Long before reading her email I had completed the following paragraph, which appears as part of a memoir in the upcoming “Ask the Pilot” book:

Watching from the airport restaurant, the KLM employees are the easiest to spot in their blue uniforms. Even their jets are done up in blue – a light and dark two-tone. There’s something soothingly Dutch about it — batter-thick shades lifted straight from a Vermeer painting. I think of those little Vermeers in their little frames at the Rijksmuseum downtown. The kitchen maid’s blue skirt, identical to that 747 over at gate 21. Then I’m asleep, my head on a table and my knee throbbing.

You’ll have to wait a few columns to learn why I fell asleep and why my knee was throbbing, but for a gorgeous shot of KLM’s livery click here. If La Gassa was put off by the brightness of KLM’s uniforms, maybe it’s best she avoid Virgin Atlantic, whose stewards and stewardesses wear an ensemble so blazingly red that their skirts are sometimes employed to melt ice from the wings.

Anyway, where were we? Right, windows and views. . .

As you already know, the greatest thing ever to be seen from the window of a plane, whether as pilot or passenger, is the skyline of Manhattan — that “quartz porcupine” as Vonnegut termed it — along the famous VFR corridor contouring the Hudson River. The rules have changed, but you can still catch some great panoramas, weather and flight patterns depending, in or out of Newark and La Guardia.

Runner up used to be the exhilarating — some would say gut churning — “checkerboard” approach to the now-shuttered Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong. Pilots would follow a ILS-style (landing guidance) beam toward a large hill on which a giant, red-and-white marker was erected. With the board in sight, and now at less than 700 feet, jets would bang a 30-degree turn toward the runway, skimming along the densely-packed hotels and highrises, rolling wings-level only moments before meeting the pavement. I experienced it once, in a Singapore Airlines 747, in the summer of 1986. Click here for a spectacular visual.

Flying to the Soviet Union earlier that same year, we were informed by the Finnair flight crew that picture taking would not be allowed during landing in Moscow. They did everything except demand we close our shades during descent. (I’d be curious, meanwhile, to hear of any recent, photo-related encounters with law enforcement or airport officials. Here in Boston, State Police have begun making routine stops of patrons caught “lingering” or otherwise arousing suspicion at Logan airport. Something you’d have found in Cold War Bucharest, maybe.)

To head off your questions:

One reason an airplane’s cabin windows are small — and round — is to better withstand and disperse the forces of pressurization. The portholes of Concorde, you may have noticed, were quite tiny. Cruising at 60,000 feet, well above most civil transports, they were subject to an unusually high inside-outside differential. Additionally their size and shape are best to assimilate the bending and flexing of a fuselage in flight. (During supersonic cruise, heat and friction would expand Concorde’s body length by several inches.)

Cockpit windows are larger, and always square-ish, you’ll say. That’s true, but also they’re bank-teller thick and bolstered by high-strength frames — resilient against pressure differentials, hail, and, potentially, oncoming birds. For added guard against the latter, they’re heated to increase flexibility. One unverified account is that of maintenance workers attempting — and failing — to shatter a discarded cockpit windscreen with a sledgehammer. Swapping out a single pane of cockpit glass can run tens of thousands of dollars.

No, I am not aware of a passenger ever being sucked through a ruptured cabin window, despite no shortage of Hollywood depictions to the contrary. I can, however, speak to the story of a British Airways captain who was partially ejected through a blown-out upper “eyebrow” pane of a BAC One-Eleven cockpit. He survived with minor injuries.

It’s beneficial to place the windows along the flattest portion of a fuselage, which is why, especially on smaller planes, they’re sometimes aligned in a less-than-optimum viewing position. (A wider fuselage means a more gradual, more accommodating curvature.)

To recycle one of my favorite air travel tidbits: Look closely at an Air India jet and you’ll notice how each cabin window is meticulously outlined with the little Taj Mahalian shape of a moghul arch. One of those instances where aviation transcends mere transportation and pays its respects to the greater realms of history, culture, tradition — whatever you might call it. (A mid ’90s episode of “The Simpsons,” once portrayed Air India’s scheme with surprising accuracy.)

The old Caravelle, a French-built jetliner of the 1960s, had triangular windows — still rounded at the corners, but distinctly three-sided. The Douglas DC-8 was another exception. Not only were it’s windows squared-off, but uniquely oversized, with almost twice the glass of your standard Boeing or Airbus. I recall flying a DC-8 to Jamaica in 1982, and marveling at the TV-sized view of towering gray stormclouds.


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.