Can we all agree that window seats are—cockpit aside—the best seats on the airplane? Most of the time passengers watch the landscape drift serenely past, but some have seen truly miraculous sights.
Why I Shoot
It's a cold morning. I try to keep my body outside of the airflow created by the removed door of my Cessna 170. Everything is dark except the dim red lights of the instrument panel and the occasional red flash of the rotating beacon. We are approaching San Francisco Bay, and I can see the first rays of the sunrise. A beautiful, timeless Waco UPF-7 is on our right wing in close formation.
I get anxious as the sky’s colors start to change fast. I want to be in the proper position for the moment the sun rises behind the Golden Gate Bridge. I can see how the sun starts to reflect in the perfect red fabric of Ferdinand’s Waco. John, as usual, is keeping the 170 perfectly stable. I need that to get steady images with my low shutter speed.
I give some hand signals to Rich, who was now controlling the Waco, to move into the position I want. My head starts to think fast in three dimensions—light, landscape, and the final element, the airplane. The pilots are the ones who bring it all together to make the magic happen. As the sun keeps rising and the light starts to get brighter, I grow more anxious. I know the best light will not last, and I increase my orders to fly quickly to different parts of the bay.
In a few minutes, we do several orbits over the Golden Gate, Point Bonita, and then we fly above the city. The modern buildings reflecting the sun create a nice contrast with the vintage biplane. Click, click, click, the memory card starts to fill quickly.
Suddenly king sun is up with all his power, and the sunrise is over. We decide to keep flying along the coast following the Pacific Coast Highway for more photo opportunities. The extra effort pays off as we encounter some nice clouds next to the cliffs to create a few more, different images.
My job was done, and now I could relax and enjoy the view. I had a big frozen smile on my face, but I knew that we had created some inspiring images showing the magic of flying, the kind of photo that answers the “why I fly” question without the need to use a thousand words. That is why I am an aviation photographer. —Leonardo Luna, Hong Kong, China
That Was Close
In the 1970s I was fortunate to have a private pilot’s license and one-half interest in a Mooney. Most of the flying was done in southern California, with occasional trips to Mexico, Las Vegas, and Lake Tahoe.
When I took off from Santa Monica Airport, one of my favorite short flights was to Santa Catalina Island, located 26 miles out to sea. As allowed by FAA rules, once offshore, you were permitted to fly as low as was safe.
On one occasion, while flying very low over the water, at 160+ miles per hour and nose trim up for safety, out of my left peripheral vision an object flashed past my wing tip. Pulling back on the controls and making a 180-degree climbing turn, I retraced my path. Lo and behold! I spotted a pod of whales heading south in the channel, some of which were breaching the ocean surface. Could an airplane have a collision with a whale? You bet! My knees still shake these many years later at the memory. —Robert Karlen, La Quinta, CA
I spent 45 years as a businessperson working internationally. Airplanes and airlines were a constant presence in my career. I flew thousands of miles yearly and visited as many as 22 countries. One trip stands out among them all.
I was responsible for the Asia region for my employer, and had a lengthy trip to India and Pakistan scheduled. There would be some gaps in the work, offering the possibility to sightsee in Pakistan along the border with China. That area has magnificent mountains, green valleys, and wild rivers. It is also notoriously difficult to reach; many of my friends have tried to fly there only to have their flights cancelled due to weather. I was fortunate.
Shortly after boarding the Pakistan Airlines Fokker F-27, I was surprised to have the crew invite me to the cockpit—the brother of a co-worker had informed the crew that I was a VIP guest and pilot. I spent the flight from Islamabad to Gilgit in awe at the scenery as we flew through the mountain valleys surrounded by snowcapped peaks, including Nanga Parbat at 26,660 feet. K2 was visible in the distance. Descending into Gilgit, the captain challenged me to find the runway. We flew up a river valley, turned sharply left at about 500 feet above ground level, and were on final approach.
The terrain is beautiful, and means that the route is visual flight only in the F-27. Much of the route is over terrain that is above the single-engine ceiling of the airplane, so engine failure would likely mean drifting down to a forced landing. —Varel Freeman, Ocala, FL
The One That Didn’t Get Away
I took off at first light and headed northwest. After skirting Chicago, I headed north with Lake Michigan to my right. The sun was still low and the summer air was calm and smooth, so I stayed at about 1,500 feet above ground level to enjoy the experience. Crossing the glassy estuary of the Fox River, I was idly watching my shadow on the water ahead when I saw it—a wake behind my shadow! It could not possibly be caused by the airplane—it was well out in front of me! I dropped to 500 feet for a better look and the wake became much more distinct. My brain could not rationalize what I was seeing. Then it hit me—fish were striking at my shadow as I passed! I watched carefully and indeed, there were irregular points of disturbance within the shadow, and as they spread and combined they took on the “V” form of a wake!
This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience—at least so far. Until something more fantastic comes along, my best flying story is also my best fishing story. —Richard Oliver, Flagstaff, AZ
Alaska Critter Jam
The Gastineau Channel separates Juneau, Alaska, which is on the North American continent, from Douglas Island. It is often called the Ghastly Gastineau because of its bad weather. But the area is full of wildlife.
In early summer of 1976, I was flying a Hughes 500 helicopter on a contract out of Juneau. A new customer wanted to fly a reconnaissance flight to get familiar with the local geography and topography. On a rare beautiful clear day, we took off and flew over the Channel. We were treated to the sight of untold numbers of bald eagles flying. Some were diving for fish, some were diving to avoid us, and some seemed to be flying formation with us.
After a few minutes with the eagles, we flew back up the Gastineau and found a pod of killer whales. There were at least six whales, including a large male with a tall dorsal fin that distinguished him from the others.
After watching the whales for several minutes, we headed for the 1,500-square-mile Juneau Ice Field. But we never made it to the ice field as we saw a group of mountain goats on a cliff face. These great shaggy white beasts seemed at ease where there appeared to be nothing but a sheer rock cliff.
By this time we were running low on fuel and had to return to the airport. I had seen lots of wildlife on different flights, but never before or since have I seen so much wildlife on one flight. —Eric Rebstock, Las Vegas, NV
Who’s a Good Vagabond?
One Sunday while I was stationed at King Salmon, Alaska, flying the bush, I put the [Cessna] Caravan away after finishing the day’s schedule. It was a rare blue-sky day with very little wind, so I decided to do some exploring. I got my little 700-pound, 75-horsepower Piper Vagabond out of the hangar and flew out to Tony Sarp’s Katmai Lodge for lunch.
After a delicious buffet lunch, I flew up to the headwaters of the Alagnak River, spotting several moose and two large brown bears along the way. From there I went over to Brooks Lodge, the famous bear watching site, where we dropped tourists off by floatplane. I turned west and flew up the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes to the Mount Katmai caldera. After circling the lake inside it, I turned south and flew over the craters of three other mountain volcanoes. I circled inside the crater of Mount Martin, and it was a very tight turn. The water in the bottom was boiling and the smell of sulfur was so strong I was afraid the engine might quit.
The red, green, and yellow minerals showing in the rocks of the mountains along with the beautiful blue of the Pacific in the sunlight was a sight to behold. It was a panorama few will ever see and a day I will always remember. That tiny plane took me over some of the most rugged and wild country there is. It got a well-deserved pat on the nose when I put it away. —Gary Evans, Independence, OR
It is still pitch dark outside. We’re about an hour west of LAX. We have two more position reports to make and then we’re home free.
And then I see it. It’s just a glimpse of light on the horizon. The ocean below is black, the sky above is something a little less than black and then this pinpoint of light starts to appear. John and I sit there mesmerized by what we see. It’s breathtaking. It’s a moonrise and it is happening right now! We can actually see it rising. It seems like just a minute has passed, but the ocean water below is lit up. You can see the waves. It’s not like a sunrise that lights up the whole horizon. This is different.
This is beautiful. I call the girls. I want them to come up and take a look. “Thanks, we’ll be up in a couple of minutes,” Suzie says. I say, “it will be too late by then,” but she’s already hung up. I think to myself, that’s too bad. They are really going to miss something special.
John begins the descent. I make the final public address call and thank everyone for their business. This time of year, it’s still dark for our landing. Interestingly, as we turn back west to land on 27L, there is the moon again. It’s not as big as before, but it’s still an awesome sight. —Craig Davis, Williams Bay, WI
Montana from Above
Northwest Montana had been on our bucket list for a long time. While we did a fair amount of hiking, flying a general aviation aircraft provided a vantage point that nothing else can. And the state is not known as “Big Sky” for no reason.
We used a combination of aviation sectional and an aerial map to design the course. It was much easier to pinpoint the sights we wanted to see on the map; however, we made sure we were complying with all airspace rules with the sectional.
The flying up there is fantastic. The views are incredible, and the airports one can visit are fun. We flew over all of Glacier National Park, Flathead National Forest, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the Cabinet Mountains, and hundreds of lakes. My favorite sight was probably Grinnell Lake. —Yasmina Platt, Houston, TX
Volcano in a Circle of Sand
With two FAA-issued aircraft maintenance licenses (A&P), we were allowed to fly in the cockpit with the pilot-in-command’s consent.
I had just finished a two-week composite repair class and needed to connect [through] Guam, Tokyo, Houston. The flight was full so I asked the pilot if I could fly jumpseat.
He consented and we had an uneventful takeoff and climb to altitude. I observed the cockpit axiom: speak when spoken to (except when something concerning airworthiness came up).
About 40 minutes into the three-hour flight, the pilot turned to me over his right shoulder and asked, “Want to see a volcano?” He contacted [air traffic] control and deviated a couple of degrees north, and about 20 minutes later, he pointed out a very small island with a plume of two shades of dark gray smoke. As we got closer, he dipped the starboard wing down just a bump so we could see the event better. Drawing near, we could see that the island was almost a perfect circle: a ring of white sand, a ring of palm trees, and a mountain spewing smoke in the middle. No sign of human habitation.
He told me a temperature inversion caused the column of smoke to be flat-topped.
The remainder of the flight was textbook: smooth approach and landing. Very cool flight! —John Fraser, Humble, TX
Rock, Snow, and Ice
While returning with my wife from our first trip to England and France, the captain announced that if we looked out the port-side windows, we could see the country of Greenland. On the flight out to Europe, as we passed over Greenland, it was night, so we never saw the country from the airplane.
However, on the return flight home it was in daytime, and the weather was perfect to see this amazing country from 35,000 feet. I could not believe the clarity of the mountains’ peaks, which were in sharp contrast to the snow-covered waterway that contained broken bits of ice, which from our height looked like boats traveling on the water. The clouds that were visible filled the valleys between the mountain peaks, making the contrast between dark and light more intense. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, and I quickly got my camera to take this photo. It was a wonderful way to end our memorable trip to Europe. —Stephen Mirkin, North Hollywood, CA
Fog on the Chesapeake
In spite of happening years ago, this breathtaking view has remained vivid in my mind to this day, and I tell it to anyone who will listen. As pilots, we are more privileged than our non-aviator brethren. We get to see the world working from our perch on high. Such was the case on this routine flight across the Chesapeake Bay.
This particular morning provided unlimited visibility and winds that were absolutely non-existent. As I approached the bay, I noticed that a fog had developed to a depth of about 100 feet. In the middle of this thick mist was a dark line as straight as if drawn by a laser. As my aircraft arrived over this line, I saw that the fog was parted top to bottom to a width of about 50 feet. The sides of this clearing were perfectly perpendicular to the surface of the water, were absolutely still, and made no attempt at filling back in the clear air of that miles-long line. In a few minutes, all was made clear. A freighter, traveling from bay to ocean, had “cut” this fog like a knife. The air, being so still, allowed this phenomenon to remain intact long enough for me, the sole aircraft over the water that morning, to see this once-in-a-lifetime view from above. —Bradley C. Hess, Kenton, OH