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I’ve been wanting to fly on the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” ever since I missed a chance to go on an inaugural junket aboard one before Boeing began delivery to the airlines. But I finally got my chance, three days ago, aboard United Flight 935 from London to Los Angeles.

Some context: United is my default airline by virtue of having flown 1.5 million miles with them, which has earned me some status. Specifically, I get on shorter lines, don’t get charged for bags, and have some choice about where I sit, which defaults to Economy Plus: the section of Economy that features a bit more leg room and is typically located which is behind business/first, now called Polaris.

I should add that I actually like United, and have had few of the bad experiences people tend to associate with big old airlines. And plenty of good ones. And not all the news about United is bad. For example, wider economy seats coming in refurbed 767s.

So. How about the 787?

It’s a nice plane in many ways, which Boeing explains here. Maybe the best in the air today.

But, hate to say, my experience with it was less than ideal.

The first problem is that, according to SeatGuru, the whole Economy Plus section is over the wing on both the airline’s configurations: 787/8 and 787/9. This means there is little or no view of the ground out the window. That view is one of the main attractions of window seats and why I love flying. See all these photos were taken out the windows of planes? Nearly all the planes I shot those from were United’s, and I have kindly tagged them #United as well. (See http://bit.ly/UnitedAerial.)

To be fair, all of United’s widebody planes (747,767, 777, 787) put most of Economy Plus over the wing. But in most cases a row or two is in front of the wing or behind it. Not, alas, on the new 787s.

So I booked a seat in the economy section. Fortunately, I don’t have long femurs, so leg room usually isn’t an issue for me. In fact, I like sitting in the back of plane, farther the better. That way as little of the wing as possible intrudes on the view. And the legroom actually wasn’t bad on this plane anyway, so that’s one plus.

The seat I chose was 37L, a window seat in a row that gave me 3 seats to myself, because the flight turned out to be less than full. This is another reason to book seats in the back. They’re the least likely seats to be filled on a less-than-full flight. (But be sure to check with SeatGuru, which warn me away from rows which have missing windows. Most planes do have some of those.)

My second problem turns out to be one of the 787’s biggest selling points: electronically dimmable windows:

It’s a clever system that eliminates the window shade, an ancient feature that actually gives the individual a simple manual control over the view, and of light coming in.

My problem isn’t with the windows themselves, which are relatively large (but with more added view toward the sky than the ground). My problem is with a loss of individual control, and an apparent preference by the crew for the equivalent of no windows at all.

So, for example, on this flight the crew turned all the windows dark just before the fjords and glaciers of Greenland’s coast came into view. They announced that this was so people could sleep or watch their screens without glare. But this flight wasn’t a red-eye. The plane left at roughly 2pm from London and arrived in Los Angeles at around 5pm, with daylight all the way. Yes, it would be the middle of the night (UK time) on arrival, but that was another six hours in the future, and the scene was amazing:

So I turned my window up to clear (which happens so slowly you wonder if it’s working at first), and a flight attendant came over. Here’s the dialog, as best I recall it:

“Sir, you need to darken your window.”

“I got a window seat so I could see outside.”

“But other people are trying to sleep or watch their screens.”

“I’ll darken it later. Right now I want to see Greenland. Have you seen this? It’s spectacular.”

“Please be aware of the other passengers, sir.”

In fact I was.

There were two empty seats in my row.The window seat wasn’t occupied in the row in front of me. (An older woman seemed to be sleeping in the middle seat.) And the only other passenger in sight was a guy reading in an otherwise empty middle row across the aisle from me. I was also talking geography with the people behind me, who were watching Greenland scroll by through my aft window (their row, 38, had no window) saying “Holy shit! Look at that! Look at THAT!” over and over. And with good reason. A United pilot once announced to a plane I was on that Greenland is the most spectacular thing one can see from a passenger jet.

So I really didn’t need to dim my window for others. But I felt like I was getting busted for some infraction of flight etiquette that made no sense, given that the 787, more than other planes was supposed to be about the joy of flying. (Louis CK enlarges on this kind of aviation irony with his “Everything is a amazing and nobody’s happy” bit. If you’re in a hurry, start about 2 minutes in.)

My final problem is also with the windows: they block GPS signals, I suppose as a secondary effect of the dimmable thing. This meant I couldn’t record the trip on my little Garmin pocket GPS, which I’ve been using for many years to keep track of where I’ve been, and to geo-locate photos.

So I’ll go out of my way to avoid United’s 787s from now on. They’re great planes, but not for me.

Here’s what flying in and out of Newark looks like right now:


That storm is very heavy, but narrow. It’s going to wash over New York like a big wave.

Hat tip to Flightaware.

away2remember2manytabsFor today’s entries, I’m noting which linked pieces require you to turn off tracking protection, meaning tracking is required by those publishers. I’m also annotating entries with hashtags and organizing sections into bulleted lists.

#AdBlocking and #Advertising




I’ve been fascinated for years by what comes and goes at the Fort Irwin National Training Center


—in the Mojave Desert, amidst the dark and colorful Calico Mountains of California, situated in the forbidding nowhere that stretches between Barstow and Death Valley.

Here and there, amidst the webwork of trails in the dirt left by tanks, jeeps and other combat vehicles, fake towns and other structures go up and come down. So, for example, here is Etrebat Shar, a fake town in an “artificial Afghanistan” that I shot earlier this month, on June 2:


And here is a broader view across the desert valley east of Fort Irwin itself:


Look to the right of the “town.” See that area where it looks like something got erased? Well, it did. I took the two shots above earlier this month, on June 2. Here’s a shot of the same scene on June 25, 2013:


Not only is the “town” a bit bigger, but there’s this whole other collection of walls and buildings, covering a far larger area, to the right, or east.

I also see in this shot that it was gone on December 8, 2014.

Now I’m fascinated by this town and the erased something-or-other nearby, which I also shot on June 2:


It appears to be “Medina Wasl,” which Wikipedia says is one of twelve towns built for desert warfare training:

One of the features of the base is the presence of 12 mock “villages” which are used to train troops in Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) prior to their deployment. The villages mimic real villages and have variety of buildings such as religious sites, hotels, traffic circles, etc. filled with foreign language speaking actors portraying government officials, local police, local military, villagers, street vendors, and insurgents. The largest two are known as Razish and Ujen, the closest located about 30 minutes from the main part of the post. Most of the buildings are created using intermodal containers, stacked to create larger structures, the largest village consists of 585 buildings that can engage an entire brigade combat team into a fight.

Now I’m slowly going through my other shots over the years to see if I can find Razish and Ujen… if they haven’t been erased.

It would be cool to hear from military folk familiar with Fort Irwin, or veterans who have worked or fought mock battles in those towns.

Oil from the Coal Oil Seep Field drifts across Platform Holly, off the shore of UC Santa Barbara.

Oil from the Coal Oil Seep Field drifts across Platform Holly, off the shore of UC Santa Barbara.

Oil in the water is one of the strange graces of life on Califonia’s South Coast.

What we see here is a long slick of oil in the Pacific, drifting across Platform Holly, which taps into the Elwood Oil Field, which is of a piece with the Coal Oil Point Seep Field, all a stone’s throw off Coal Oil Point, better known as UC Santa Barbara.

Wikipedia (at the momentsays this:

The Coal Oil Point seep field offshore from Santa Barbara, California isa petroleum seep area of about three square kilometres, adjacent to the Ellwood Oil Field, and releases about 40 tons of methane per day and about 19 tons of reactive organic gas (ethane, propane, butane and higher hydrocarbons), about twice the hydrocarbon air pollution released by all the cars and trucks in Santa Barbara County in 1990.[1]The liquid petroleum produces a slick that is many kilometres long and when degraded by evaporationand weathering, produces tar balls which wash up on the beaches for miles around.[2]

This seep also releases on the order of 100 to 150 barrels (16 to 24 m3) of liquid petroleum per day.[3] The field produces about 9 cubic meters of natural gas per barrel of petroleum.[2]

Leakage from the natural seeps near Platform Holly, the production platform for the South Ellwood Offshore oilfield, has decreased substantially, probably from the decrease in reservoir pressure due to the oil and gas produced at the platform.[2]

On the day I shot this (February 10), from a plane departing from Santa Barbara for Los Angeles, the quantity of oil in the water looked unusually high to me. But I suppose it varies from day to day.

Interesting fact:

  • Chumash canoes were made planks carved from redwood or pine logs washed ashore after storms, and sealed with asphalt tar from the seeps. There are no redwoods on the South Coast, by the way. The nearest are far up the coast at Big Sur, a couple hundred miles to the northwest. (It is likely that most of the redwood floating into the South Coast came from much farther north, where the Mendicino and Humboldt coastlines are heavily forested with redwood.)
  • National Geographic says that using the tar had the effect of shrinking the size of Chumash heads over many generations.
  • There are also few rocks hard enough to craft into a knife or an ax anywhere near Santa Barbara, or even in the Santa Ynez mountains behind it. All the local rocks are of relatively soft sedimentary kinds. Stones used for tools were mostly obtained by trade with tribes from other regions.

Here’s the whole album of oil seep shots.

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I’ve seen auroras on red-eyes between the U.S. and Europe before. This one over Lake Superior, for example, on a July night in 2007. And this one over Greenland in September 2012. But both of those were fairly dim. Sunday night’s red-eye was different. This one was a real show. And I almost missed it.

First, my window seat had no window. It was 33A on a United 777: an exit row, with lots of legroom, but a wall where other seats have a window. But I got a corner of the window behind me if I leaned back. The girl sitting there shut the window to block out the sun earlier in the flight, but now it was dark, so I opened the window and saw this: a green curtain of light over the wing. So I got my camera, and wedged it into the narrow space at the top right corner of the window, where I could get a clean shot. And then I shot away.

All the times on the shots are Pacific US time, but the local time here — looking north across Hudson Bay, from northern Quebec — were Eastern, or flanking midnight.

None of the shots in the set have been processed in any way. Later, when I have time, I’ll add a few more, and edit them to bring out what the naked eye saw: the best reason to have a window seat on the polar side of a red-eye flight.



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Here is how New York looked through my front window yesterday at 3:51am, when I was packing to fly and drive from JFK to LAX to Santa Barbara:

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 7.37.38 AM

I shoveled a path to the street four times: the first three through light and fluffy snow, and the fourth through rain, slush and a ridge of myucch scraped in front of the driveway by a plow. By the time we got to JFK, all the pretty snow was thick gray slush. It was a good time to get the hell out. Fortunately, @United got us onto the first flight of the day to LAX . (We had been booked on a later flight. To see the crunch we missed, run the FlightAware MiseryMap for JFK, and watch 2 February.)

The flight to LAX was quick for a westbound one (which flies against the wind): a little over five hours. For half the country, the scene below was mostly white. This one…

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 8.14.24 AM

… of the ridge country between Beaver Dam Lake and Columbus, Wisconsin, said far more about snow than the white alone suggested. Those corrugated hills are grooves scraped onto the the landscape by the Wisconsin Glacial Episode, during which a local lobe of the Laurentide ice sheet crept steadily northeast to southwest, finally melting into lakes and rivers only about ten thousand years ago — a mere blink in geologic time.

A few minutes later came the snow-covered Mississippi, skirting Prairie du Chein, on the Wisconsin-Iowa border:

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 8.14.39 AM

Then, a couple hours later, we flew straight across the Grand Canyon, which has a horizontal immensity one tends to miss when gawking at the canyon’s scenic climaxes from the ground. One of my favorite features there is the Uinkaret Volcanic Field, which poured a syrup of lava over the Canyon’s layer cake of 290-1700-year old rock. That happened about 70,000 years ago, and still looks fresh:

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 8.13.47 AM

(BTW, two of the three pictures at that last link, in Wikipedia, are ones I shot on earlier trips. The third is by NASA.)

Gliding into LAX, we got a nice view of downtown…

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 8.13.30 AM

… where the temperature was 76°.

When we got home to Santa Barbara it was about 70° and looked like this, out my home office door:

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 7.40.01 AM

It wasn’t the prettiest sunset we’ve had here (this one I shot on 22 January was spectacular), but I’ve rarely seen a more welcome scenic bookend for a cross-country trip.

FlightAware's Misery MapThat’s FlightAware‘s MiseryMap. Go there now, click on the blue “play” button and watch what happens. If you’re close to now (8:56pm EST), you’ll see what weather does directly to major airports in Chicago, New York and Atlanta, and indirectly (by delayed flights due to unavailable airplanes, mostly) to Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, etc. If you’re at some other time in the future, it will still show weather and flight delays, because we always have both.

The MiseryMap is also one of the coolest and most useful examples of data visualization on the Web. And a trifecta winner for weather, aviation and geography freaks like me.

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Unless you look out the window.

When I did that on 4 November 2007, halfway between London and Denver, I saw this:

baffin Best I could tell at the time, this was Greenland. That’s how I labeled it in this album on Flickr. For years after that, I kept looking at Greenland maps, trying to find where, exactly, these glaciers and mountains…


While I’m sure there are good maps of Greenland somewhere (Nuuk? Denmark?), Google, Bing and the rest are no help. Nor are the fat world atlases. Here’s an island the size of a continent, with lots of Fjords and islands and glaciers and mountains and stuff, many of which were surely named by the natives or visitors, and there ain’t much.

But:::: good news.

There, out my dirty and frosty window over the trailing edge of the wing, was the same long deep valley I had seen seven years before. Only now I was equipped to learn what was what, and where. My GPS and the plane’s map — there on a screen mounted in the back of the seat in front of me — agreed: we flying over the Cumberland Peninsula of Baffin Island, an Arctic landform almost twice the size of New Zealand, in Nunavut, Canada’s newest, most arctic and least populated territory.

The valley, I discovered on the ground, is called Akshayuk Pass. It connects the North and South Pangnirtung Fjords, bisecting the peninsula. Imagine a Yosemite Valley with a floor of glaciers draining into Arctic rivers, flanked for seventy miles by dozens of Half Domes and El Capitans — crossing the Arctic Circle, through an island where the last Ice Age still hasn’t ended.

On the west side of the pass is the Penny Ice Cap, a mini-Greenland inside the forbidding and spectacular Auyuittuq National Park. Wikipedia explains, “In Inuktitut (the language of Nunavut‘s aboriginal people, the Inuit), Auyuittuq (current spelling: ᐊᐅᔪᐃᑦᑐᖅ aujuittuq) means ‘the land that never melts.'” Nobody lives there. Hiking across it ranges from difficult to impossible. The only way to fully take it in is from the sky above, like I found myself doing right then. It was thrilling.

On the first flight over, I became fascinated by a mountain, just south of the Penny Ice Cap, that looked like an old tooth with fillings that had fallen out. It’s in the lower left side of this shot here from the 2007 trip:

asgard So I recognized it instantly when I saw it again two days ago. Here’s how it looked this time:

agard2 Now that I could research the scenery, I found it was Mt. Asgard, named after the realm of Norse gods. From below it looks the part. (That link is to amazing photos by Artur Stanisz, shot from Turner Glacier, which Asgard overlooks in the shot above. Fun fact: one of the great James Bond ski chase stunts was shot here. See this video explaining it. Start at about 1:33.)

So now we have all these albums:

Which join these others on Flickr:

A digression on the subject of aviation…

A bit before I started shooting these scenes, a flight attendant asked me to shade my window, so others on the plane could sleep or watch their movies. Note that this was in the middle of a daytime flight, not a red-eye. When I told her I booked a window seat to look and shoot out the window, she was surprised but supportive. “That is pretty out there,” she said.

Later, when we were over Hudson Bay and the view was all clouds, I got up to visit the loo and count how many other windows had shades raised. There were very few: maybe eight, out of dozens of windows in the economy cabin of our Boeing 777. Everybody was watching a movie, eating, sleeping or otherwise paying no attention to the scenery outside.

No wonder a cynical term used by airline people to label passengers is “walking freight.” The romance and thrill of flying has given way to rolling passengers on and off, and filling them with bad food and failed movies.

Progress is how the miraculous becomes mundane. Many of our ancestors would have given limbs for the privilege of seeing what’s on the other side of our window shades in the sky. Glad all we need is to give up our cynicism about flying.

Here in the temperate zones, summer is beaches and picnics and biking and dinner on the deck outside. It is also thunderstorms and airport delays.

Right now a line of thunderheads  is sliding northeastward across New Jersey. Here is how it looks to FlightAware‘s map of aviation and weather activity for Newark Liberty Airport:

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 5.46.14 PMNotice how the incoming flights are threading through and around the heaviest rain, which is where the nasty winds are. I’m sure the approaches are still bumpy, in spite of the avoidings.

You’ll notice, if you click on the map above, or this link, it says,

Newark Liberty Intl (KEWR) is currently experiencing:

  • inbound flights delayed at their origin an average of 4 hours 38 minutes due to low clouds
  • departure delays of 1 hours 46 minutes to 2 hours (and increasing) due to weather

For a national context, here is FlightAware’s MiseryMap

miserymapThat’s just a screen shot. Go to the actual map and hit the blue play button. Impressive, huh?

I also like Intellicast’s map of lightning strikes:

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 5.59.25 PMThe lightning is striking the ‘hood right now, and the rain is coming down hard.

I also like Intellicast‘s maps and phone and tablet apps. Check ’em out.

And now my phone just went off like a smoke alarm. The first time I’ve ever heard a sound that grating. The screen says this:

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 6.13.57 PM

A flash flood warning.

Dark Sky, I should add, is another good app. Tells you how many minutes will pass before it rains, and then how long it will likely last.

iTransNYC is also the best of the New York transit apps. “Incident” is, I gather, a euphemism. If the problem is a police action, a sick passenger or a derailment, they say so. If it’s a worse casualty, they call it an “incident.” Averages about one a week.


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