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Proficient Pilot: Window or aisle?

Adventure lies outside closed shades

My first ride in an airplane was aboard a North American Airlines DC–4 that whisked me at the age of 13 from Burbank to Wichita to Chicago Midway to New York’s LaGuardia Airport to visit my grandparents in New Jersey. I had been staring out my window at the night sky but saw only blue flames streaking from beneath the metal coverings of those noisy, monstrous engines. Were the pilots aware of those flames? I wondered nervously.

But then an awesome event began to unfold. The eastern horizon became visible and the sky became brighter until a sunburst of light suddenly revealed the world beneath our wings. I discovered a panoply of farms and rivers and lakes and towns—things I had never before seen from above. It was mesmerizing, magical. I pressed my nose so hard against the window that I thought something would break (my nose or the window).

In social studies class we had been taught about global overpopulation but from where I sat, such a concept was impossible to comprehend; except for the dots of small towns scattered hither and yon, the land seemed vacant.

As an airline captain many years later, I enjoyed pointing out interesting sights to my passengers. But as years passed, I discovered that they weren’t as interested in such things as they had been. These changing attitudes were highlighted during my last polar flight from London to Los Angeles. We were approaching the east coast of Greenland, and that view was more striking than I’d ever before seen. I picked up the handset and told my passengers over the PA system about the spectacle passing below—something that very few people get to see and that they likely would never see again, particularly under these conditions. Then came an insistent, coded knock on the cockpit door. A flight attendant wanted to come forward. Once inside the cockpit she said in a scolding tone, “You’re interrupting the movie, and the passengers are getting upset.” Only a few of them, I was told, seemed interested in looking out their windows.

When I am an airline passenger—something I generally try to avoid these days—I am torn between the choice of a window or an aisle seat. The pilot part of me wants to sit near the window. I still love gazing at that blue palette upon which Mother Nature paints breathtaking and constantly changing hues and shapes. Sometimes, though, her creations can be threatening, especially the ones that spit lightning. Even as a passenger, I’d often bring along topographical charts to continue my informal study of physical geography.

On the other hand, I enjoy an aisle seat because of the freedom it provides. I can get up any time without bothering or waking a seatmate. What I hate about an aisle seat, though, is that it prevents me from having control of the window shade, which all too often is kept closed. I can’t stand not being able to see outside during takeoff, and I am uncomfortable when unable to appraise our surroundings during turbulence or when on an approach. I cannot fathom how anyone can sit for hours without showing any curiosity whatsoever about the incredible sights hidden by their window shade. Can people these days really be more interested in what they can see on their devices than outside the aircraft?

Airline passengers not only seem oblivious to the view from above, they’ve generally become anti-social, ignoring their seatmates. While they used to introduce themselves to one another and engage in occasional conversation, today it seems that they prefer the company of their devices.

A few years ago a friend and I were returning from Page, Arizona, in his V-tail Bonanza, and our track passed directly over the Grand Canyon. It was nearing sunset, and the walls of the canyon were ablaze with a kaleidoscope of reds and magentas. I pointed this out to my friend’s son, who was sitting in back, preoccupied with his iPad. When I called his attention to the incredible sight below, he took a quick look, returned to his game, and said, “Yeah, I’ve seen that.”

His father was incredulous. “You’ve never been here. How could you have seen it?”

“Aw, c’mon, Dad,” he replied. “I’ve seen it on the internet.”

General aviation enthusiasts have been wondering for years why more people aren’t interested in learning to fly. Some blame higher costs while others point to increased complexity and regulation. These might be factors, but I think that other significant culprits are the internet and related devices that seem to be winning the competition for our time and attention—and are displacing our sense of personal adventure.

Barry Schiff

Barry Schiff

Barry Schiff has been an aviation media consultant and technical advisor for motion pictures for more than 40 years. He is chairman of the AOPA Foundation Legacy Society.

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