Seat 6A

LeavingFairbanks_06 I just returned to semi-tropical Seattle from the Aviation North Expo 2007 in Fairbanks, where I spoke about stall/spin training and using Microsoft Flight Simulator as a training aid. As I noted earlier, aviation is modern Alaska’s lifeline. Even the indigenous people are flying into Fairbanks this week for the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention.

The ANE conference focuses on safety, and Alaska pilots have more than the usual issues to deal with. Most short trips in the Lower 48 don’t take a typical light airplane pilot far from civilization. Fly just 30 minutes from Anchorage (less from Fairbanks), however, and you usually find yourself far from basic services, to say nothing of most creature comforts–often in temperatures from another world.

As others have noted many times, the scale of Alaska overwhelms your normal sense of perspective. I have ferried small airplanes to Alaska a couple of times (pictures here), but the first leg of the airline flight home this morning from Fairbanks to Anchorage gave me a high-altitude perspective that I had missed on previous trips.

LeavingFairbanks_05 I have flown in the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest for more than 30 years, and I’ve made many cross-country treks around the U.S. mainland. I’m accustomed to wide-open spaces and tall mountains. But as I pressed my nose against the window at seat 6A this morning (even if you’re a jaded road-warrior, always get a window seat on flights to, over, and from Alaska), I suddenly realized what was missing from the scenery below: straight lines.

In the sparsely populated areas of the American West, people have etched the landscape with roads, power lines, and the grids that divvy up range and farmland. Look closely, and beyond the glow of Las Vegas, even the moonscape that is most of Nevada betrays a human presence. We build visitor centers at the bottom of Meteor Crater.

But moments after departing Fairbanks by air, you see a primal vista that flows unbroken to the horizon. No straight lines.

I’m reminded of a wonderful book, Inside the Sky by William Langewiesche. Chapter 2, "The Stranger’s Path," tells the story of John Brinckerhoff Jackson, in Langewiesche’s words, "the greatest explorer of the aerial view." Jackson, who spent much of his life in New Mexico, once wrote:

"…What catches our eye and arouses our interest is not the sandy washes and the naked rocks, but the evidences of man."

Perhaps he’d never flown above Alaska.

(More pictures from this morning’s flight here.)

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