On The Road
A Pilot’s Guide To The Best Plane Rides
From Rio to Riyadh, the views that are above and beyond all others – according to the guy who is flying the plane
You’ll definitely want a window seat for this impressive view of Miami. Photograph by Mr Brian Hillen
If you flew on 747s a lot in the late 1980s and early 1990s, you might have seen me. I was the teenager in the window seat, the guy listening to REM on his Walkman, or scrawling notes in the pages of a well-worn diary, but mostly just staring out the window at all the land and sea and cloudscapes scrolling past. (I hope you weren’t the one trying to sleep when I refused to lower the blind.) So it was natural, perhaps, that I became a pilot. I first flew the Airbus A320 on short-haul routes from London Heathrow to cities across Europe, and since 2007, I’ve been flying a newer version of the 747 from Heathrow to dozens of major cities around the world, including New York, San Francisco and Singapore.
In addition to flying, I’ve become a writer. I’ve just published Skyfaring: A Journey With A Pilot, a book about my job. It might surprise you to learn that, even though I work in the cockpit, I always ask for a window seat when I fly as a passenger. After all, it’s passengers, not pilots, who are free to contemplate the hours-long sunsets, the snow-capped mountains and the shining blue oceans, and to meditate on what it means to move over our planet in this remarkable way. It’s passengers who can cue up a great song for take-off or landing (Ms Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia” always works), or flip between a notebook on their lap and the turning world outside. My favourite cities, listed below, are the places where the arrival is so memorable and so beautiful that, from up in the cockpit, I sometimes wish I could swap seats with one of the lucky people in 5A or 43K.
Photograph by Mr James L Stanfield/National Geographic Creative
There’s something about the scale of a flight from London to Cape Town that accentuates the wonder of long-haul travel. The flight is typically overnight, so you take off from Heathrow in the early evening and enjoy dinner and a film as you fly over France, Spain and the Mediterranean. No matter what time of year you’re travelling, the sun has usually set by the time we’re over Algeria. Passengers drift off to sleep, while in the cockpit we’re getting weather reports from various airports in the Sahara and the Sahel. We cross the west African coast near Lagos, and then the equator over the open ocean, as the stars of the Southern Cross rise into the night sky. When the sun comes up, we’re off the haunting, shipwreck-littered desert coast of Namibia, beloved by Ms Angelina Jolie and so many other travellers for its epic and all but untouched scenery (I came here once on a roadtrip, and Namibia makes California’s Mojave Desert seem crowded by comparison). It’s hard to imagine a more stunning accompaniment to your full English breakfast. When we start our descent, soon we see Table Mountain in the distance. As we make our final approach to Cape Town over the Atlantic Ocean or False Bay, it’s easy to think of all the ships and world-weary sailors who have called here. After weeks, or maybe months, at sea, this must have been the most beautiful place they ever saw.
Check the forecast. If the wind is from the south, sit on the right-hand side of the plane. If it’s from the north, try the left, and enjoy views of the Cape of Good Hope in the last 10 minutes or so before landing.
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Photograph by Mr Ma Wenxiao, courtesy of Foster + Partners
Beijing is one of those cities – so utterly enormous, and so marvellously different from the small town in New England where I grew up – that every time I fly there, I’m reminded how lucky I am to have a job that allows me to travel. Arriving from London, we normally make our approach from the northwest. Passengers on both sides will see the rumble of tawny hills and mountains to the north of the city – and, if they look carefully, the Great Wall that runs between the peaks – give way to one of the world’s largest and most vibrant urban areas, scattered with so many high-rises it’s hard for the eye to take in their scale. If it’s a clear day, you’ll see the skyscrapers of the city centre as you loop anticlockwise around the metropolis. The airport is its own wonder. Its spacious and quiet Terminal 3, a cathedral of glass and steel designed by Sir Norman Foster and built for the 2008 Olympics, is one of the largest buildings on Earth.
Flights normally land towards the north, with jets arriving from Europe typically arcing around the south of the city first. Sit on the left side of the plane for the best views of the city.
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Photograph by Ms Susanne Kremer/4Corners
Sometimes when you fly to Miami from London, you see nothing of Bermuda or the Bahamas along the way. That means no land at all between the south coast of England and the coast of Florida, which appears as a brilliant and sharply defined blade of green – or of light, if the sun has set – lying at the edge of the Atlantic. You see the famous hotels and Ferrari-packed boulevards of Miami Beach and then the increasingly Hong Kong-like sea of skyscrapers rising from Downtown, and then you head out west to turn all the way back around for our typical easterly landing, a route that takes you briefly over the lush and watery world of the Everglades. Beaches, glittering lights, a world-class wilderness, a well-placed hub airport – there’s no better reminder of Miami’s position at the crossroads of North, Central and South American trade and culture.
It’s all good. But the most scenic arrivals are at dusk or after dark, when the skyscrapers are at their dazzling best.
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Photograph by Alamy
One of the things you realise when you look down on land from above is the importance of water in shaping the human geography of the world. Surprisingly, this is evident even after dark. Places with wet or temperate climates tend to have broad patterns of lights over a diffuse landscape, while deserts, for example, tend to have much more clearly defined settlements that reflect urban centres or concentrations of water. You see this when you fly to Phoenix, for example – the city simply turns on like a switch. Or in Egypt, where at night the course of the Nile forms a river of light. An even more striking example is Riyadh. The darkness and relative emptiness of the surrounding desert are all the more apparent when the city itself appears, flat and so densely and brightly lit with yellow and white lights that it almost looks as if it’s floating in space. I always find it amazing to think that this is Arabia, a place as mythical as it is modern, and this is the enormous capital city right in the middle of it, yet earlier in the day, we saw hedgerows and the White Cliffs of Dover under the wings.
The best views of the sprawling metropolis are typically from the right side.
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Photograph by Mr Albert Normandin/Tourism Vancouver
What’s the recipe for a city location that almost everyone will love? Start with water and add mountains (and some good places for brunch). You’ll end up with A-list destinations such as Cape Town, Seattle, Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hong Kong – and Vancouver. This bustling city on Canada’s west coast is surrounded by mountains that are so immense, snowy and sublime that in the cockpit we sometimes call it Switzerland-on-Sea. The weather isn’t always perfect, but when the sun does come out, you’ll be treated to unrivalled views of the snow-capped Coast Mountains, the sparkling blue waters of Burrard Inlet and the Strait of Georgia, and the glassy skyscrapers that tower over Downtown Vancouver. It’s like nowhere else on Earth.
You’ll see the Coast Mountains from both sides, but the best views of Downtown are usually from the right.
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Rio de Janeiro
Photograph by Airpano
So, about that combination of water and mountains. If you’re more inclined to surfing than skiing, and looking for a tropical version of Vancouver, her name is Rio. When I first started flying 747s, Rio was a shuttle flight. We’d pick up a jet in São Paulo that had just arrived from London, and take it on to Rio. Then we’d head into town and have half a day on the beach before bringing the same aircraft back to São Paulo, where a new crew would fly it home to London. I could never quite believe it was my job to take a 747 to Rio for the day, and it was hard to remember to pack my swimming trunks and sunscreen (my sunglasses are always in my flight bag). The best views of the famous Sugarloaf and Corcovado mountains and Ipanema and Copacabana beaches are often from flights to the city’s smaller Santos Dumont airport (named after Brazilian aviator Mr Alberto Santos-Dumont). But whichever airport you fly into, you’ll see ridiculously lush green hills rising from sparkling waters.
If you’re flying from Europe, you’ll arrive at Rio’s main airport, Galeão, a lovely name you’ll never tire of hearing Brazilians pronounce. Arrivals vary with the wind, but best to try the right side.
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Photograph by Mr Jason Hawkes
Heathrow’s location, just west of central London, and the city’s prevailing westerly winds mean that travellers flying to Europe’s busiest airport are regularly feted with glorious views of a metropolis that has good reason to call itself the capital of the world. I love to look out at the various neighbourhoods I’ve lived in, the ever changing skyline and the famous sites – Tower Bridge, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament – that I like to imagine are catching the eyes of those passengers who are coming to London for the first time. Dusk is my favourite time to arrive. The sky above London is still lit, but the sparkling lights of the city below are already visible. Their shimmer highlights the buzz of the city, but also the dark in-between spaces that make the capital so liveable – the tapestry of parks and the gentle turns of the River Thames.
Most flights land towards the west. Passengers on the left side of the plane may get great views of central London during the initial approach, but on the final approach, the best views are always on the right side.
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The Sunday Times bestseller Skyfaring: A Journey With A Pilot (Vintage) by Mr Mark Vanhoenacker, is out now in paperback
British Airways has been appointed as the official airline partner of Team GB and ParalympicsGB, ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer