One of my favorite places in the world is an unremarkable street corner in Los Angeles. Look around and you'll see the typical trappings of urban Southern California: an In-N-Out Burger, a few scattered palm trees, a parking garage, and a cluster of low-rise buildings. If the weather is nice, which it often is in LA, you can relax in a small park and enjoy a burger.
Wait a few minutes, though, and something utterly captivating happens. Looking east you'll first see it as what looks like a pair of headlights glistening in the sky.
As the lights grow closer, a more recognizable shape appears, and before you can swap your Double Double for a camera, a commercial airliner -- sometimes a pokey commuter turboprop, sometimes a massive Boeing 747 -- thunders low over your head to land at Los Angeles International Airport.
It's something in the air
To me, there is no technology more fascinating, more magical, and more wholly unbelievable than these machines that allow us to hurtle into the air and soar across the Earth. To really geek you out, it's only commercial aircraft that get me this excited. I can tell a (passenger) Airbus A319 from an A320, but an F-16 might as well be a tax form.
Honestly, I have trouble articulating exactly why I'm so enthralled -- maybe it's just that it takes only a crafted sheet of metal (that's the wing) to lift thousands more pounds of metal and everything inside it, from people to beverage carts to luggage, far off the ground.
I get the science behind why it happens, but it isn't supposed to happen. Humans did not evolve to fly, but we do every day, across every corner of the world. It's routine, it's common, and it's incredible that we're able to do it at all.
I've no romantic illusions about the experience of modern air travel. In pursuit of the noble goal of making it accessible to all, it has become a dehumanizing experience with no other purpose than to get you from Point A to B. Unless you're in the premium classes, the days of onboard lounges, hot meals and a predeparture cocktail are long over. The romance of a Pan Am 707 has been replaced by the tedium of Spirit Airlines (or Ryanair, if you prefer). But that's not the point.
I look forward to every flight long before it takes off. When we drove to LAX for vacation when I was a kid, I'd sit up on my seat as soon we exited the freeway to catch my first glimpse of a tail in the distance. As an adult, that sense of anticipation hasn't changed a bit. My husband will never let me live down this one time that I fell completely silent as we drove past, too focused on the aircraft to speak (OK, so maybe it was more than once).
I get to the airport early to walk around, see what new aircraft and airlines I can spot, and check where all the flights are going. As we taxi out to the runway, I'm (always) at the window seat scanning the apron and runway and snapping photos. During the flight, I'm picking out cities and natural features. And on approach, I'm watching the ground grow closer, snapping more photos and sometimes a video.
And back on the ground
My camera is also in hand each time I'm at that LA corner, the same place I asked my dad to take me from the moment I could crane my head skyward (he usually obliged). There, as you're close enough to see the oil streaks on the fuselage and count the tires on the landing gear, I still get a rush as the airliners swoop overhead. I've continued the tradition in London, where I live now, though with a few changes.
The first day I trekked out to Hatton Cross on the Underground, I was shocked by the number of people sitting in a field at the end of a drab suburban road at Heathrow's edge. Most were snapping photos like me, while others scribbled in notebooks tracking the tail numbers of the aircraft descending overhead. The variety of airlines and aircraft was far richer than LAX, and there's a pub nearby to substitute for In-N-Out.
Whether I'm on the ground or in the air, I'll never tire of the thrilling sensation of flight, to be pulled into the clouds as the engines whine, the wings flex, and the sky opens up for the best view there is. Flying has transformed us a civilization. It's what makes it possible for us to visit faraway loved ones, get one-day deliveries from Amazon, and see the sun set over Sydney Harbor hours after leaving San Francisco.
I'll pass on being a pilot, thank you (I don't want that kind of responsibility), but I'll jump at any chance to go along for the ride.