Two weeks ago, for the first time in three years, I was wrong about an airport.
No, I didn't mistakenly show up for a flight at San Francisco when it really left from Oakland. But I did pick the wrong airport.
Let me explain.
Since 2013 I've played a game with my friend Sam: an incredibly geeky and utterly fascinating game. He posts a photo of an airport to Facebook and I have to guess which airport it is. Not only that, I have to guess the specific gate in the airport's terminal where he took the photo. I don't blame you if you're rolling your eyes at the whole idea, but it's a wonderful way to exercise your mind. And you need only to read Ben Mutzabaugh's column in USA Today to see that we're hardly alone.
The funny thing is though Sam and I both live in the Bay Area, I can't remember the last time I saw him. But until we meet again in person, our online relationship has endured. Even as Facebook keeps failing at everything from political ads to , our game is one of the reasons it.
That's what friends are for
The game all started by chance. Sam travels frequently for work and jets every year to some exotic location like the Cook Islands to kiteboard. So one day while waiting for yet another flight, he posted an airport photo and asked his Facebook friends to guess where he was. More photos soon followed and an epic battle was born.
I was immediately on board with the concept. As a committed aviation geek, I enjoy going to the airport even when I'm not flying anywhere. I love an airport's energy and simply watching the aircraft come and go. At first the game was relatively easy -- there would be an obvious city skyline in the background, for example, or it was an airport I visit frequently -- and Sam's other Facebook friends joined in to guess. But after I started always answering correctly (not-so humble brag), he directed the posts only to me. He'd try to make his photos more difficult, which I only took as a challenge to win. And for six years and about 15 airports, I did.
My proudest achievements were correctly identifying three airports I've never visited: Des Moines, Iowa; Burlington, Vermont; and Savannah, Georgia. We drew an audience as the game continued and it was fun to watch my other friends submit their own photos. I also enjoyed imagining Sam gasping in disbelief at my success -- at one point his friend suggested I had slipped a GPS tracker in his suitcase. In 2015, I made my first mistakes -- I guessed Houston when it was Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and San Diego when it was Daytona Beach, Florida -- but I considered them to be small bumps in the road.
I had another winning streak, but then Sam went to Norfolk, Virginia.
Tools of the trade
When he posted the above photo, I studied it for days. Besides the Delta aircraft parked at the gate, he left me no clues. So, I had to blindly throw spaghetti at the wall and see what would stick. Based on the flat green terrain, that Delta plane and the fact that I knew he was on a kiteboarding trip, I finally settled on Fort Myers, Florida. But, no, it was Norfolk. My spaghetti missed the wall by 900 miles.
It was a tough loss, even if I always knew my streak wouldn't last forever. I toyed with the idea of going out on top and hanging up my captain's hat for good, but that would be no fun for either of us. Instead, I'll finally grant Sam something he's long asked for: the steps I've used to guess correctly all those years. Using the below photo of Burlington International Airport as an example, here are my secrets. Fair warning to him, though, they're pretty simple.
Step 1: Consider obvious clues
The first things I look for in a photo are the aircraft and airlines. An Airbus A380, for example, tells me he's in a big city. A mass of United Airlines planes is a sign the airport is one of the airline's hubs. If I see , I figure he's likely on the West Coast since the airline primarily operates there. Visible foreign airlines can also be important clues. Israel's El Al serves only five cities in the US, letting me narrow down the list of possibilities quickly.
In the Burlington photo, there's just one plane visible: a Bombardier Canadair regional jet (Sam was too careful to include the airline's livery). That's not so helpful, but it led me to believe he was in a smaller city. A major airport would have more activity in the background with a wider variety of planes, both big and small.
Next I check what's in the background. I start with any buildings, such as a control tower, a section of a terminal or even structures far in the distance. I also study the terrain to identify what color the landscape is and pick out any recognizable landmarks. If I see lots of green, I figure Sam isn't in Arizona. If there's a mountain, he can't be in Florida.
When I first saw the Burlington photo, the hills in the background made me rule out the Midwest and much of the Southeast (both regions are largely too flat). The grove of trees also caused me to disregard the Southwest -- for the most part, both places are too dry to have that kind of vegetation. That left two possibilities as I saw it: the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast. In the end, my gut told me it was the Northeast. The hills in the background looked relatively high, but I'd be more likely to see actual mountains if he was in Oregon.
Step 2: Work from a pattern
I know Sam's a frequent flyer for a major airline. So, for the sake of my own sanity, I have to assume he's flying on that airline for this trip. And since I've already assumed he's at a small airport in the Northeast, I know he'd have to change planes at one of the airline's hub airports to fly there from San Francisco.
That decision took me to the Wikipedia page for the airline's hub airport in New York, the most likely place for Sam to transfer. Say what you will about its accuracy on more controversial subjects, but Wikipedia is a wonderfully reliable resource for researching where you can fly nonstop from any commercial airport. I started by making a list of the smaller airports that his airline flies to from New York. Then, I checked flight schedules to make sure he would have been traveling around the time that I suspect he took the photo (based on the light, it looked like late afternoon). In the end, I settled on a list of about 10 possible airports, from Burlington down to Maryland.
Step 3: There's a map for that
Google Maps is my next tool. Using the Satellite View, I look for buildings, geographical features and an airport design that resemble what I see in the photo. Google 3D view is especially fantastic since it gives you a near-ground-level perspective, but it's not available everywhere. If I'm really stuck, I'll also check related photos from Google Street View to see if any are similar to his shot.
As it's entirely trial and error, this is the most time-consuming and difficult step in my process. With the Burlington photo, I had to find a specific arrangement of four things: a runway and a hangar in front of a grove of trees with a range of hills in the far background. Not only that, the airport's terminal needed to be located in a place that would afford Sam such a view. It took about an hour, but after eliminating the other options, Burlington was the best match.
Step 4: I'm not done yet
But, wait there's more. To guess where in the airport's terminal Sam took the photo I use Google Maps and the terminal floor plan on the airport's website. Sometimes an airport's website also tells you which gates an airline will use -- that's a huge help.
Given that Sam's photo shows a clear view outside, without any other terminal buildings in the background, I used the floor plan to select Gate 8. I was correct.
Sept 5: Luck
Though I try to make an educated guess, some of the time I've also just been lucky. And luck, unfortunately, is something I can't perfect.
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