Out the Airplane Window
Travel Stories: During flights, Peter Ferry isn't quick to pull down the window shade or watch a bad movie. Here's why.
07.20.10 | 12:59 PM ET
Not long ago I flew from Minneapolis to Los Angeles and watched more than half the country pass beneath me on a cloudless day. It was almost like running my fingers over the topographical map of North America in my sixth-grade classroom. There were the plains of green fading to brown, ridge after ridge of the snow-dusted Rocky Mountains, the vast lifeless deserts of Utah and Nevada, the Sierra Nevada, then civilization looking a good bit neater, tidier and cleaner from up there than from down here.
With all of that outside the window, why do we so often pull down the little shade, watch a bad movie or listen to music we can’t really hear above the engines? I think there are a few reasons. One is that the big picture is hard to grasp; it’s often simply overwhelming. Another is that to look out the window is to remind ourselves that there is nothing between us and death but a machine, a mechanic and a pilot. Flying still seems like the most dangerous thing most of us do routinely except driving. It’s why early stewardesses were all nurses and over the years the airlines have plied us with food, cigarettes and liquor and distracted us with movies and folksy chatter.
But there is something more. What you see out the window of a plane is raw footage. It lacks a point of view. It has no narrative or sound track. And we’re all glad about that, because the last thing anyone wants on a plane is drama.
Still, I can tell you with certainty, and in the spirit of the notion that the journey is the destination, that some of the most stunning, memorable moments of my life have come as a passive observer through the window of a commercial aircraft.
The first time I had a sense of North America’s vastness was the first time I flew to Europe from Chicago. Before we could even see the Atlantic, we came down, down ever closer to an endless pine forest and I was sure we were going to crash until suddenly a runway appeared beneath us, and we landed at Goose Bay, Newfoundland, for refueling.
A few minutes later in a tiny terminal that looked a lot like an old Texaco station, the pilot, leaning against one of those pop machines in which the bottles stood in icy water, pushed his cap back, took a slug of Coke and said, “Need a little caffeine.”
Twice on crystal-clear days I’ve passed the southern tip of Greenland, which is a huge white island of ice, and remembered the Vikings’ deception in naming it and in naming the milder island of Iceland, which is green. Another fine day we traced the arc of the Aleutian Islands out across half the Pacific just as surely as if we were flying over the map itself. I did the same flying into Merida as we followed the soft green curve of Texas and then Mexico around the Caribbean to the Yucatan peninsula.
But if looking out the window can teach geography, it can also teach history. Flying from Bangkok to Hong Kong one time, I had the good fortune to be bumped up to first class and to be seated beside Walter Wise. He was a Canadian helicopter pilot who had worked in Southeast Asia for many years, and as we passed over Vietnam, he pointed out the central highlands, the winding Mekong River and then the city of Da Nang.
“Looks like Wisconsin,” I said, “with all the lakes and ponds.”
“Those aren’t ponds,” Walter said. “Those are bomb craters.”
On a magical honeymoon trip for which a generous friend had given us first-class tickets, we sailed in over Cornwall on the relentlessly green southwest coast of Shakespeare’s “precious stone set in a silver sea” and understood viscerally his love of “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” Strangely I confuse this image with one of southwestern Oahu, also so green with life against a very blue sea.
Two other images connected in my mind because both were breathtakingly beautiful were of Mt. Rainier protruding through a layer of cloud to gleam white in the moonlight, and the man-made mountains of Chicago’s skyline rising surreally into sunshine above a low fog.
Of course, the single most thrilling thing I ever saw out a plane window was the earth 15 feet beneath me when we touched down at Quito, Ecuador, after three aborted attempts to land on a foggy night and three big loops above snow-capped volcanoes. The plane’s passengers burst into applause, and the head flight attendant congratulated the pilot on “a very, very difficult landing.” That was a thrill of a different kind all together, but even it reminds us that flying is still an adventure and that to soar up there seven miles high is still a remarkable thing.