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Boarding may be a mess, the carry-on bags out of control, and your fellow passengers behaving badly. But ah, the thrill of the window seat.
For many people, no matter how annoying flying gets, the view from 35,000 feet still has charms to soothe the traveler’s soul.
“It’s the greatest show on Earth, really,” said James Jackson, who teaches geology at Portland State University and co-wrote “America from the Air: A Guide to the Landscape Along Your Route.”
Gregory Dicum admits he looks out the window so much when he flies that he sometimes leaves planes with a sore neck.
“In all of human history, it’s only been in the last four or five decades that it’s been possible for ordinary people to get that vantage point,” said Dicum, author of “Window Seat: Reading the Landscape from the Air.”
“It’s sort of the stuff of legend — Icarus … and now you get it free with every flight you take.”
Whether you’re a kid flying for the first time or a veteran globetrotter, there are sights that make it hard to resist pressing your nose against the window.
Do you have any incredible photos from 35,000 feet? Send them in!
Let’s start with one of the most visually striking: the circle-shaped farms that turn the landscape below into a giant patterned rug.
Created by a method of watering crops called center pivot irrigation, you’ll often see these geometric “pizza farms” — as Jackson's co-author Daniel Mathews calls them — when flying over hot, dry, flat states like Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
There’s a well in the center of the farm and a long sprinkler arm on wheels that pivots around it, allowing thirsty crops to thrive. The result: a perfect circle of green against a backdrop of brown where the water doesn’t reach.
“I was once on a plane over Kansas when the pilot came on the speaker and told us that those fields were where they grew the wheat for Cheerios. I'm pretty sure he was joking,” said Selby Cull, an assistant professor of geology at Bryn Mawr College.
When friends and students kept peppering her with questions about landforms they saw from airplanes, she created Rocks From Above, a guide to some of the strange formations.
Most of the sights people ask about end up being human-made, she said.
Ever see long, treeless lines that cut straight across mountain ranges? That’s where vegetation has been cut down to make room for long-distance power lines and their towers, Cull explained.
And the large squares of turquoise-colored water you see when you fly over mining areas are tailings ponds — pools where potentially hazardous rocks are deposited to let the heavy metals settle out, Cull said. They have bright colors because of tiny suspended metal particles in the water.
Seemingly mundane sights can fascinate, too, from the vantage point of a plane.
“I’m always impressed by the extent of suburbs, especially at night,” Jackson said. The interstate highway system and its clover leaf interchanges intrigue many fliers, he added.
Geometric patterns always get travelers’ attention because they know they’re man-made, Dicum said. To take the mystery out of what fliers see, he co-founded MondoWindow, an interactive map that allows passengers with Wi-Fi access to know exactly what’s beneath them.
Then, there are flights where nature just puts on a show.
One of Jackson’s favorite routes is the flight from Seattle to Anchorage, which lets passengers feast on sights including Puget Sound, the coast of British Columbia, Alaska’s Saint Elias Mountains and Glacier Bay.
Cull loves observing the Appalachian Mountains from a plane and more.
“The northern parts of the U.S. are (pockmarked) with millions of tiny round lakes formed from melting blocks of ice as the last ice sheet retreated, and the colors of all the oxidized minerals flying over the deserts of Arizona never fail to make me happy,” she said.
Want to get the best views while flying? Sit on the side of the plane that’s away from the sun so you don’t have to deal with the glare, Jackson advised. A flight later in the day means a lower sun angle and stronger shadows, so land features will really pop out, he added.