Flying with the Window Shades Down

Second only to space, I have always been very interested in aviation.  To this day I am thrilled to get to fly on any type of airplane – well, maybe not about the security lines, but I am thrilled about the actual flying.

I grew up in a time and place where people actually went to the local airport just to watch the airplanes land and take off.  Seems silly now, but aviation is like magic in many ways.

I always search out a window seat and curse my luck when I can’t get one.  I like to watch them marshal the planes around the gates and I study the taxiway patterns.  I always check to see if the flaps are set properly (at least on my side of the airplane) and am mentally prepared to ring the flight attendant call button to send a message to the pilot if it doesn’t look right.  During the takeoff or landing roll I count the distance remaining boards on the runway to see how fast we are accelerating or stopping.  I find it all so very interesting and entertaining.

In flight I am fascinated by what I can see out the window.  I love those flight tracking programs that keep me updated on where we are; watching the geography unfold below me is endlessly fascinating.  And especially out west, where the vegetation is sparse, contemplating the geology and land forms is intriguing.

But best of all is watching the weather.  Back when I was a Shuttle Ascent/Entry Flight Director we hung on every word that the airborne weather observers would radio down to us.  On every airline flight I would study the clouds and imagine how I would describe them to Mission Control – good practice in understanding what the weather pilots would report to me later.  Thin high cirrus clouds – are they translucent or opaque?  Not an easy call some times, but the difference would have a dramatic effect on a shuttle deorbit call.  Lower puffy clouds –are they building and showing precipitation forming?  Or are they just fair weather cumulus?  How high are the bases?  Is the coverage more or less than 50% – the difference between scattered and broken – the difference between go and no-go? Watching the gravity waves in stratus clouds, lightning erupting from towering cumulus, uncanny demarcation lines between a cloud street and clear skies; all endless fodder for study.

And beautiful as well.  Pastels that cannot be captured by any camera.  Endlessly changing.

So, I love to fly in a window seat, with the window shades open.

Lately however, I’ve been getting a lot of dirty looks from people sitting near me.  The light coming in from the window is making it hard to see their little electronic screens where they are watching some fiction or sending some emails.  They want me to close the window shade so they can live in their virtual world unimpeded by light from the real world.

Nobody yet has been bold enough to request a lowered shade, but I expect that any time now.

What does it say that we are more interested in the virtual than the real?  When did the real world –with all its beauty and imperfections become less interesting than a manufactured flickering ephemeral images of vapors and imagination?

Not that imagination is bad, far from it.  But whose imagination?  Yours or somebody else’s?  And what fuels that imagination? Is it rooted in the real world?

Some profound message may be hiding here, but in my simple way it makes me worry.  We can hope to improve the world, but it is not a good thing, I think, to believe the world is different than it is.  We all have to live in the real world and deal with it – good and bad, beautiful and ugly, joyful and painful.  Hiding in the dark doesn’t seem to me to be the way to have a full, successful, and happy life.

So I won’t be flying with the window shades down, but I will be looking out there, studying.

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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31 Responses to Flying with the Window Shades Down

  1. Dan Breyfogle says:

    I thought I was the only one who took such interest in the aircraft, flight line, taxiways, runway, and flight controls as the aircraft operated. I was an aircraft mechanic while in the Air Force (C-130’s) and always enjoyed riding along when possible. But even as I stood on the ground having just marshaled the aircraft onto the taxi way I would watch it lumber down the flight line and marvel at the engineering and the skill of the flight crew. Like you, life is about reality, good or bad, and I can’t imagine choosing the artificial over reality. Great piece.

  2. @lynnvr says:

    I’d have to agree. And in my case, I’ve been asked, many times I’m afraid – but by the stewardesses/stewards, not other passengers, and primarily during intercontinental flights. I love watching the stars above the clouds and light pollution – or the thunderstorms from above – or trying to catch a glimpse of the aurora – and I cannot imagine how this could disturb a fellow passenger at night. Most of the time, if I politely state that I will close the shade before sleeping, they leave me alone, but even this does not always work.

  3. Fredric Mushel says:

    You nailed it.
    I always get a window seat when ever I can.

    As you stated, the newest generation has been brought up with computer screens, smart phones and tablets.
    Now companies are selling virtual realty glasses.

    I am so glad I grew up when I did playing outdoors and with real people.
    Instead of all this R&D for developing more “information technology” I’d rather see investment in faster than sound air craft that can fly high enough so that sonic booms are not an impediment to faster than sound flight. Although I also love flying but I can’t stand sitting in an airplane for much more than 6 hours at a time. To spend over 12 hours in a plane for me is crazy. It’s the 21st century yet we have not made it faster to travel long distances.

  4. Great post! One of my favorite, most dog-eared books is Elizabeth Wood’s “Science from Your Airplane Window.” Long out of print, the book had all kinds of interesting thought experiments ranging from calculating the distance to the horizon, figuring out how thick the windows were, and my favorite: looking for a “glory,” a circular rainbow surrounding the shadow of the plane. I always sit on the anti-solar side of planes so I can hope to catch a glimpse of one.

  5. Dan Adamo says:

    We’d be poor flying companions, Wayne. I want the window seat too!

    Regarding window shade lowering requests from other passengers, I’ve actually had at least one. To minimize these, I try for a window seat on the down-Sun (shaded) side of the plane. This also affords spectacular views of the glory point in clouds or on ground with sufficient moisture during daytime cruising.

    Being a trajectory nerd, I have my GPS receiver near the window most of the flight (flying “no frills” SWA most of the time, I have to supply my own real time flight tracker). It’s great to know when a point of interest like Mt. Hood or Crater Lake is coming up on my side of the plane. When enough flight history gets accumulated in the GPS receiver, it’s like watching SPEC 50 during approach and landing. I know almost exactly when and in what direction to expect a turn to what heading.

  6. Jay says:

    I couldn’t agree more. A similar thing occurs on driving our cars. In perfect weather – like today, too many people keep their car windows rolled fully up, protecting them from the fresh air, and the bright sun, and the smells (good and bad) of the air we breathe. We get into our little cocoons and get the AC just right, block all that “noise and discomfort” of the world, and hide away in a synthetic protective shell, that shields us from our real surroundings. I find it odd that people are drawn away from the natural world, and really seem to prefer synthetic, fabricated, medicine-y cocoons. I’m not one of them… today, I got blasted with warm sun, cool air, and even some heat from the cars heater to mix unevenly with the cool natural air.

    Way too soon, people will be not just keeping the windows up, but they will be drawing the window shades on their cars also. With the coming war on human driving, real drivers could be usurped by sophisticated sensors and algorithms, people will turn inward, cocoon up, draw the shades in the car too, and start telling human car drivers we are the dangerous ones. They’ll begin to remove light signals, as smarter and smarter vehicles know who’s coming and when, and simply adjust speed as they whizz by one another thru intersections – reliably missing each other each and every time… Improvement? Certainly. But at what cost?

    Sometimes I wonder if I like the look of the future much, but perhaps the real flying men and women, and the people who really like to drive, will find a way to coexist with the “shades up box people”.. And there will always be an option to stare imaginatively out the window in the plane, or grab the shifter on the mustang, and feel the warm salt air at 75mph. I sure hope so.

    • Tom Billings says:

      I think the reason for the cocooning is that people want to be in control of something, and it won’t ever be the plane they fly in. What *can* they control? They can control stuff on that little screen in front of them. It’s also a substitute for getting stone drunk to keep from being afraid of flying.

      The future will see more opportunities for cocooning, but also for interacting with the real world. The auto-driving that is coming *will* be safer than 99 percent of human drivers. Some will cocoon in a car, but some will use the chance to look around far more than any driver should ever do.

  7. Carlos Gomez says:

    Wayne –

    I enjoy your blog for the behind-the-scenes perspective on spaceflight. You provide “the rest of the story” and then some for the space shuttle flights I witnessed from a distance.

    Thank you for the detailed and absolutely spot-on description of the thrill of flight. As an aviation junkie myself, I too prefer window seats on all my flights for the same reasons you so vividly describe. I watch every detail I can about the process of flight from the moment I take my seat and keep watching until we arrive at the destination gate.

    Your questioning of our fascination with the artificial at the expense of the real is profound and very much needed. Just yesterday I read an article about the exploding revolution in virtual reality immersion and how it will transform how we learn about the world around us.

    As an Outreach communications specialist at NASA, it is my job to help tell the NASA story to the public. We strive to use the latest tools and methods to effectively reach our audience and the new virtual/augmented/mixed reality will certainly come in to play.
    A visitor to a NASA exhibit can interact with the latest and greatest high-tech wizardry and we work to provide the best experience possible. It is an integral part of the storytelling process.

    However, these new and immensely fascinating virtual environments make the human element more important than ever.
    As I’ve witnessed firsthand, my interaction as a NASA employee with someone interested in what NASA does gives context and meaning to the technology. This then gives the story substance and makes it believable and achievable.

    Technology can inform and impress but it cannot inspire.
    That VR headset may put a smile on my face, but it takes another person to put a smile on my soul.

    Thanks again, Wayne, for this insightful blog post.
    Keep ’em coming.

    Regards –

    Carlos

  8. jedswift says:

    Wayne (and others who are facinated by flight),
    You should go get your pilot certificate! The window in front sports a far superior view, counting markers on runways is encoraged, no security lines, no one will give you the evil eye leaving the window unabstructed, and all kinds of aviation activities open up. Great people in aviation and the nation could use more pilots.
    If it is the purity of flight, aircraft performance, and weather/atmospheric dynamics that interest you, I suggest trying soaring.

  9. flyingmerch says:

    Mr Hale;

    i have been reading your blog for years now, and although I find the ‘behind the scenes’ posts, particularly the more technical ones most interesting, this is the first post that has compelled me to reply.

    I spent 22 years at KSC, the first five or so years as a Quality Engineer with Lockheed – Lockheed Martin – USA, then the rest of my career with USA’s Information Management. I greatly enjoyed my time there, nearly fulfilling a boyhood dream of becoming an astronaut. 😉

    As the writing on the wall became unavoidable, I elected to leave the Center with about 5 launches left on the schedule and pursue my other boyhood dream. I can proudly tell you that I am now a Captain flying regional jets for one of American Airlines subsidiaries. Your description of the views out the window are spot on. I only wish for you that you could view them out the front windows rather than having the share the tiny side windows with the ‘great unwashed’ in the back.

    Dave Merchberger

    >

  10. Miles Archer says:

    You ever get magenta afterimages in the shape of the window?

    I too love looking out the window when flying.

  11. On the 1 hand, phones have better image quality than airplane windows. There’s no engine exhaust. The glass is always clean. On the other hand, what people view are mainly tired political memes rather than anything real.

  12. Charlie Kilian says:

    Regarding the people on their electronic devices, don’t forget that they are actually interacting with other people most of the time. They’re checking in with friends and family, reading the news, checking blogs like this one. It is one of the great ironies that it looks so antisocial when in reality they’re very engaged. Keeping this in mind helps remind me not to be too irritated with them.

    I still hope they don’t ask you to close the window, though.

  13. Bash says:

    I, too, am a big kid and want the window seat. But I split my time between the view and my little screen (if there’s wifi on board), learning the why behind circular crop fields (center pivot irrigation systems) or why the salt ponds in San Francisco Bay are so many different colors (different micro-organisms cause this.) Since finding ATC audio is rare on United flights these days, I’ll also use my ATC app to switch from center to center to follow my journey. Reading Dan’s comments, it looks like I’ll be adding a GPS receiver to my gear as well. Wheee!

  14. cyyoung99 says:

    Never lower that shade!! I refuse to!

  15. Beth says:

    Nail on the head with this one, Wayne. I am constantly amazed at the number of people around me who never look up from their-held device: in restaurants, state parks, sidewalks, everywhere. A virtual life is less than half a life.

    Keep those shades up!

  16. Lynda E says:

    I”m a window seater, too! Not only for all those reasons you point out (which I wholeheartedly agree with), but as a spacecraft window engineer, I also marvel a the design, construction (good or bad), quality and function of the window itself. It’s amazing how long one can remain fascinated by silly things like that…How does this window compare to the ones we design for spacecraft? What’s that little hole for? I wonder how many panes, two, no, three? They really seem like thin panes…etc. Thanks for the reminder of how big the world is.

  17. Dennis says:

    Wayne,
    I used to ride my one speed Schwinn about 5 miles to the airport to watch airplanes take off and land. I decided to be an aero engineer in the 5th grade and work at NASA Ames. I got that degree, but wound up working for the Navy first, then the last 8 1/2 years of my 35 year career at Ames until I retired. I now teach part time at a local university (aircraft design and gas turbine engines). When I fly, I like to sit near the wing trailing edge so i can watch the flaps and the ground. I also time the take-offs. One of my primary hobbies is designing, building and flying radio controlled airplanes. Flight (both in and out of the atmosphere) is fascinating.
    Shades belong up!

  18. jon spencer says:

    One of the best flights that I have ever been on was in a Stearman biplane.
    Windows, who needs windows.
    Goggles help though.

  19. Jason says:

    I like the window, too. Middle seat + glare on device screen can make for a long flight, though. I wouldn’t ask someone to put the shade down, but I can empathize with the folks who don’t have a window seat. I also think it’s gotten worse recently since shades seem to be down more – seems like there’s less overall light in the cabin, making the one open window seem exceptionally bright.

  20. Steve Pemberton says:

    It seems that we are something of a Band of Brothers here (referring to the Ernest K. Gann novel). I have certainly had my share of sore neck muscles from craning it towards the window for hours on end, worrying that I’m going to miss the next fascinating sight. And so many flights where I really needed to sleep and promised myself that this time I would, only to break that promise time and again.

    Whenever selecting my seat I always do a quick mental calculation of which side of the plane the Sun will be during most of the flight, and try to sit on the opposite side where the view out the window is usually better because of not having the Sun in your eyes (with the exception of sunrise and sunset which can be quite incredible). In fact Monday I’m flying from Atlanta to Detroit on a late-morning flight and already have my window seat booked on the left side of the plane. East-West flights you generally are safe sitting on the “north side” of the plane (only in the Northern Hemisphere of course), except during summer when you have to factor in that the early morning and late afternoon Sun is to the north. And of course never, ever sit over the wing. Or in the last row of an MD-88 where all you can see out the window is the side of the engine. Although I have heard that aviation enthusiasts enjoy the thrill, noise and vibration of sitting inches away from a JT8D at full thrust.

    They say that in the future planes won’t have windows. Sadly the generation flying then probably won’t even notice.

  21. Dave H. says:

    Wayne,

    For the 25 years, 1983 to 2008, that I was in field service I flew quite frequently. Before that time I’d only flown once, to Florida in 1979 for my honeymoon. My first flight for Westinghouse was to Zagreb. I was so excited that I didn’t sleep on the Pan Am 747 to Frankfurt. I’ll never forget the airport guard motioning with his Uzi towards a doorway while saying “Passengers for Zagreb: in here.”

    Yes, I’ve seen that movie too!

    We returned home a few days before the Korean Air Flight 007 disaster. I knew what those people were feeling…”we’ll be home in a few more hours…”

    After that, work took me all over the country. Flying then was a Great Adventure, as there were few restrictions on what you could carry aboard. Several times I had to carry a tool belt, my clothes, and all of my test and calibration equipment on board in response to a sudden emergency service call. Once, my boss tried to have me carry calibration gas cylinders on board. That’s a big no-no. On the phone, the desk agent told him that if he kept arguing I wasn’t going to be allowed to board. End of discussion.

    I used to carry a two-meter ham radio and put it against the window. I’d plug in the earphone and listen. If I wanted to know where I was I’d program 162.55 in and listen for wherever the strongest weather station was. FM’s capture effect made it easy.

    Different aircraft accelerate at different rates. 747’s feel like they’re never going to lift off until they do. One pilot on a USAir 757 cranked it up leaving Pittsburgh for SFO until things in the overhead bins began making cracking sounds. Every gearhead on the plane had a grin from ear-to-ear! Another flight, from Lexington, Kentucky in a BAC twin-engine jet was noteworthy. We made the turn onto the runway with so much speed I thought the plane would tip and still we didn’t lift off until well past the tower!

    Then came 9/11. Flying wasn’t fun anymore. People became more aggressive and self-centered. They just HAD to recline their seat and destroy your knees because it was somehow their inalienable “right”. Seats on Spirit Air craft don’t recline, and a fellow flier called the flight attendant because I had somehow prevented their seat from reclining.

    A flight to Chicago on Southwest prompted me to write the company. Watching people prepare food and change infants’ diapers on a blanket spread out on the floor in the queue was bad enough with a changing station a mere 50 feet away was on par with the line-jumpers who arrived late and couldn’t be bothered with going to the end of the line. Call them out and guess what? You’re the bad guy.

    I gave up the flying life in 2008. Nowadays, since it’s just my wife and I we fly to Myrtle Beach and avoid the long car drives. But, one flight remains memorable.

    In early 2011 money was tight because of Philip’s Penn State tuition. When we were invited to attend the STS-135 launch it looked like I was going solo, riding down on my Sportster. A boiler tube leak in late May suddenly put enough money on the table for us all to fly down and experience a Space Shuttle launch.

    Leaving Orlando on the way home, the pilot put the pedal to the metal and increased the climb rate enough to put a smile on my face as we ascended through the early morning Florida skies. For a few seconds, I could close my eyes and imagine what might have been if life had chosen a different path for me.

    On a flight from Minneapolis to Stevens Point via puddle jumper, I noticed that one flight attendant was a dead ringer for Tonya Harding. When I told her, she smiled and said “Watch your knees.” I was sitting in the aisle seat and had allowed my left knee to sneak out, impeding her progress with the beverage cart.

    Another morning flight from Decatur, Illinois to Indianapolis in 1988 on a 12 seater propjet was notable for its pilot’s humor. After he looked his passengers over and assigned our seats based on weight distribution I asked him what the morning meal might be. “Whatever you brought”, was his reply. Once airborne, flying into the sun, I asked what the in-flight movie was, and he gestured to the windshield and said “You’re looking at it.”

    Yeah, it used to be fun

  22. pinballgraham says:

    Birds of a feather! I always have a little sense of amazement that this huge, heavy thing can roar down the runway and take to the air, feel that acceleration, watch the ground fall away. A reminder of how much humanity can achieve.

    And the view downwards, too. When I used to fly from Chicago to London, I could look down and see Greenland or Nova Scotia or wherever the flight went over, the trackless, grey, forbidding terrain and think, “If I wound up down there, I’d die”. Or coming west to LA, seeing the desert, then the little threads of grid, each bigger than the last as the towns below grey, then a speckle of trees over one ridge, then another, then suddenly the sprawl of urbanisation, a thin strip of separation at 500mph. So much beauty at remove.

  23. Archibald says:

    I have exact similar feelings, so I was deeply touched by that post. Been an aviation buff and a space nerd since aged 5.
    The flaps, seating near the windows, the acceleration at liftoff, the huge sizes of the 777’s GE-90s – all this.
    Recently I flew from Metropolitan France to La Réunion island (down under near Madagascar) a 12 hours flight mostly by night.
    Well I just couldn’t slept.
    We overflew Italy and the balkans and the view from 35 000 ft was amazing. Eatch patch of light marked human civilization. I couldn’t help thinking about the view from ISS. It was such a powerful feeling.

    • Archibald says:

      Also in my mind is a trip from Florence to Lyon on a prop-driven ATR-72 with all those clouds towering much, much above our flight altitude…

  24. Laura Lane says:

    Heaven forbid someone should ask me to lower the shade; it’s the best part being able to watch the scenery unfold below you!

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