The view from on high

Sep 19, 2016 - 7:15 PM

The views from a private jet can make for a sublime experience. You really do get the feeling of having “joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds” and “chased the shouting wind,” to quote Royal Canadian Air Force pilot John Gillespie Magee Jr.’s stirring 1941 sonnet, “High Flight.”

Here’s an example. I recently flew in a business jet from the Midwest to Las Vegas, and as I looked out the window well into the flight, we’d just crossed the hump of the western Rockies. Somewhere below, I guessed, were the headwaters of the Colorado River, where it gathers shape and starts tumbling on a 1,450-mile course through Colorado, Utah, and Arizona, into Mexico, and finally toward the Gulf of California.

Living in the Sonoran Desert just outside Tucson, Arizona, I have a more-than-casual interest in this river, without whose bounty much of the southwestern U.S. would have a hard time thriving. So after looking out the window for a few minutes, I walked up to the open cockpit door and leaned in with a question: “Doesn’t the Colorado River start in the mountains somewhere down there?”

The first officer surveyed the craggy landscape 35,000 feet below. “You know, I think it does,” he said finally. Now the captain also was curious. “Get the map,” he said.

The first officer pulled one out. And sure enough, right down there we could discern the Colorado headwaters. For the next long phase of the flight, we followed the route of the river as it gained force down the mountains and plunged southwestward, turning emerald-hued as it cut through the Grand Canyon that it had created, backing up in Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam. For pilots and passengers alike (several others in the cabin had joined the fun of following the Colorado from their seats), it was an unanticipated lesson in geography, history, and simple beauty.

That sort of thing—being able to luxuriate on the magnificence of the Earth from the air—still thrills my friend Adam Twidell, a former Royal Air Force pilot who entered business aviation through NetJets and now is the CEO of PrivateFly, a London-based private jet charter network.
“You’re a lot closer to the very idea of aviation” in a business jet, he said recently, after mentioning that he’d loved air travel ever since he was a kid listening to radio transmissions from pilots on approach to an airport near his home in Scotland.

In military aviation, of course, the thrill of flying can be most dramatic. I recall being aboard a small Navy transport that landed on a giant aircraft carrier in the South China Sea off Vietnam in 1968. That carrier looked like a floating cigar from 30,000 feet over the vast cobalt sea, until it suddenly heaved up sea monster–like as the descending airplane framed that flight deck and belly-whumped in. What a kick that was!

On a business jet, the thrill is subtler, but often indelibly memorable. One reason is that, as Twidell put it, “your airplane to a certain extent goes where you want it to. You need to plan, of course, but you can deviate somewhat, and if you want, you can follow the lay of the land.”

He added that he relishes contemplating the hills of his native Scotland and the landscapes of Wales from the air. Twidell once flew a cycling champion on a private jet and traced the man’s training route on the Pyrenees on down to the Mediterranean. He recalls the perimeter between India and Pakistan, lit up so brightly at night by opposite-facing military garrisons that it was as if the entire border were a distinct line burned into the Earth in a wall of fire.

“On an airliner,” said Twidell, “you see things like that just fleetingly as a passenger.

“For the [airline] pilot, somebody else has come up with a schedule months in advance; your passengers are packed in side by side; and your whole route is outlined for you. You can deviate from that a little for weather, when you tell the air-traffic controller you’d like to go left 20 degrees for one mile. All the way, though, you’re very much asking for permission.”

On a business jet, he added, “the passengers often will come up to ask if they can fly over a certain area. And in general, you get lots of questions from passengers about flying, or about cities or places that you see below. You have the joy of engaging in conversation about flying.”

What I usually remember most is the final approach. Earlier this year, Twidell’s PrivateFly invited me to participate on a panel of travel writers and aviation enthusiasts in the company’s global poll to choose the world’s most striking approaches by air.

The list I submitted had two places that I most remember seeing from a passenger window of a private airplane.

Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport on the tiny island of Saba “looms out of the Caribbean like Kong Island in the first (1933) King Kong movie,” I wrote. “The landing between jagged cliffs onto the world’s smallest commercial airport runway (1,300 feet) is as memorable as landing on an aircraft carrier.”

I also named Malta, of which I wrote: “Approached from a churning blue sea, the tiny, isolated rocky island nation suddenly appears. You immediately understand Malta’s strategic geo-political importance for literally millennia by sea and later air in the middle of the Mediterranean.”

I was happy to see that PrivateSky’s final Top 10 list of approaches, compiled with 7,500 individual votes, had Saba at No. 5, but I was especially pleased to see that Malta was No. 1.

Like me, Twidell has flown into ancient Malta on a private jet. Approaching it, he told me, “is like flying into a painting.”

I don’t think the poet John Gillespie Magee Jr. could have said that better.