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

Greenland (Photo by Jim Benning)

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.

Peter Ferry is the author of the novel Old Heart, which Dave Eggers says "has the power to change lives" and Book Week says is a "superbly written, life affirming novel about love and second chances." Ferry is also the author of the novel Travel Writing.

14 Comments for Out the Airplane Window

Expat American 07.20.10 | 11:36 PM ET

For tens of thousands of years, human beings dreamed about having the ability to fly. Davinci probably would have chopped off a leg just to be able to experience it. So it saddens me to see all the rows of people ignoring what’s going on outside, paying no attention to liftoffs or landings, seemingly having no interest in the wonder of flying. Me, I love looking out the window, and have fond memories of seeing the mountains of the Kamchatka penninsula, volcanos rising up from the island of Java, and flying into Delhi at night. Amazing.

Ryan 07.21.10 | 12:46 AM ET

I have to say, dropping below the blanket of cloud cover above Sao Paulo and seeing city as far as I could see in all directions, with no end in site despite our height; and seeing the white dots of glaciers in the North Atlantic as I flew over on a return trip from Europe, are my favorite views.

El Cid Vacation 07.21.10 | 2:18 AM ET

i’ve always been fascinated in looking outside airplane windows. i love the view, although what you can see is just clouds, it’s still fun :)

Mikeachim 07.21.10 | 8:40 AM ET

Lovely post. Shivers of remembrance. Because I’m nervy in planes, and looking out the window is against all my shrieking instincts.

But I do it, every time - for all the reasons you list so evocatively. And once I’ve got used to the sight (my mind overwhelmed, my heart pounding), it’s the only truly interesting thing to see on a long flight…which helps with the nervousness.

sq 07.21.10 | 10:16 AM ET

Thanks for the lovely story.  I am the same way, I find myself glued to windows when flying observing and wondering about the landscape below (granted I do usually have headphones in).  On my last flight, Anchorage to Dallas, I saw amazing landscapes of mountains, lakes, and ice floats fade into the night.  After night fall came, I saw one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen - a lightening storm from 30,000 feet, bursts of light scattered below me lightening up the clouds of the night sky.

Travel-Writers-Exchange.com 07.21.10 | 10:25 AM ET

There’s nothing like looking out the window and seeing what’s below you or what’s not below you.  It’s exciting when you visit a new city/country because you get to see how the landscape is different or the same.  Depending on where you travel, you could be whisked away to another time because the buildings look the same as they did centuries ago.

bluesfemme 07.21.10 | 10:27 AM ET

Even sadder is when you’re enthralled and want to know more about the landscape below - and the air attendents know nothing about it. I was so disappointed for them that that amazing view outside is not enjoyment for them.

Pre Google earth we were on a domestic trip flying over the vastness of Western Australia and saw what we now know are the salt flats around Pingrup. Amazing, and yet no one could tell me at the time whether it was sinkholes, mining remains, salt lakes or flats or something else.

Marty 07.21.10 | 3:28 PM ET

Having lived in San Diego for many years, I can still vividly see the Grand Canyon under the wing of an airplane on flights back to the Midwest - a much better view that from anywhere on the ground.

Also while in California, I spent twelve years flying hanggliders.  I can remember on flight in particular - I was soaring at 11,000 feet when a Lear jet, on its descent into San Diego, flew by.  I could see some of the passengers peering out - most likely astonished to find me there.

Gretchen 07.21.10 | 5:37 PM ET

I always, always pick the window seat on every flight.  I adore watching the landscape below me, particularly flying in and out of my hometown of Boston.  I was just there last week, and as the plane finally sunk below the clouds on final approach, the first thing I recognized was my high school from 35 years ago!  Then as it descended closer to Logan, I saw the beach where I learned to swim, two places where I used to live, then finally Castle Island just a few feet below the wheels before touchdown.  I’ve been able to photograph my mother’s home in Hull, my sister’s high rise office building downtown, even Fenway Park during a game!  On another trip this year, we flew right over Niagara Falls, getting a gorgeous view of the area.  The Rockies and desert southwest have to be one of the most thrilling areas to view - I remember picking out Moab and Canyonlands National Park on my last flight from Denver to Vegas.  So to sum it up, Window Seats Rule!

air max 180 07.26.10 | 5:02 AM ET

The master of the world, only you know
The secret of a world, only you know

Laura 07.27.10 | 5:49 PM ET

I love the sensation of watching the land rush by, too.  It’s like suddenly gaining another sense dimension, where before we were limited to only things coming straight at us.  It’s both empowering and humbling to view the vastness of land and water.

bubba smythe 08.18.10 | 6:26 AM ET

I have been glued to my window from takeoff to touchdown on several occasions. Once I flew from Denver to NY, and the whole way the plane was banking left and right from huge thunderstorms. It was a dance, that included flying through white turrets, the cabin lights coming on while we were flying through them, only to have our eyes singed by full sun on the other side.
What a show!
Meanwhile the crew, and most passengers seemed nonplussed.
My rapture was complete, in spite of the annoyance to the other passengers in my aisle. They did not have a chance to see the magnificent falls, where newlyweds flock, and where the men go down in barrels!

bill m 09.04.10 | 4:12 PM ET

I avoid window seats on aircraft because of claustrophobia, and there are times this worked in my favor.  Traveling from Bangkok to Kathmandu I was on the right side of the plane.  There in my aisle seat, I craned my neck and savored the view of majestic Mt. Everest after passing over Myanmar and Bangladesh.
On another flight from Detroit to Tokyo, I happened upon a man with a long lensed camera shooting out the exit window at the rear of the plane.  As I looked closer, it was Alaska in all its vastness he was eying below.  I stopped for a peek while stretching my legs and the view was unforgettable.

Shawn 09.08.10 | 10:37 AM ET

As an addict to the window seat, I also avoid the crackling headphones and movies on the tiny screen.  I am rarely at ease when flying, so I stare out the window and spontaneously create a little drama for myself.
Greenland was one of my highlights as well.  It seems so close when you fly over it. 
I especially like the night time visuals while passing over rural areas.  And yes, the best way to remind ourselves of the wonder of flight is to look out the window and watch.

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