The view from above

Being a pilot offers a special overview of your world and the events affecting it. It’s part of what makes flying special. This month’s devastating tornados call this to mind. Our airborne views of human civilization and nature’s ways are perspectives the Average Joe might not see in a lifetime.

This month’s news from Tornado Alley also recalls other disasters, reminding us that extremes of weather and happenstance can occur anywhere. It happened outside usually mild Washington, D.C., in April 2002. An F5 ground through D.C.’s southeastern exurbs. Devastated was the town of La Plata, Maryland, once a familiar landmark on the old U.S. 301 trek to Florida.

A week after the emergency, I pulled out the old L-16 to trace the twister’s path. If you saw TV coverage from Oklahoma, you know what it looked like. (Their brave news chopper jocks have broken new ground in reporting — not only imaging post-storm destruction, but trailing funnel clouds in real time as they approach the city.)

Nothing conquers Weather Channel-fatigue like the real thing coming right at you on TV! FLYING’s Dick Collins had a similar take on the power of audio/video communication in the 1980s. (His advice: Broadcast the ominous soundtrack from GAMA’s new Thunderstorm Avoidance presentation over VOR identifiers near severe weather. That would scare ‘em out of the air, he thought… at least better than some long-forgotten FAA safety show.)

Post-storm, those Oklahoma news choppers immediately swept back over the tornado track, offering rescue agencies fast knowledge of storm scope and damage. The Civil Air Patrol did the same later with detailed aerial photos. Even in this day of satellite reconnaissance and drones, piloted aircraft can do some things first and best.

My 2002 flight over the La Plata tornado’s 20-mile path was a humbling eye-opener. It revealed not just miles of splintered roofs and flattened buildings, but an absolute scouring down to southern Maryland’s red earth. It humbles the mortal soul. And it encourages everyone NOT to be complacent about nature’s wildest furies. If you’ve seen it, you won’t forget it. This week, storm shelters are rightly the new “in” thing.

There – another life experience open to us because we fly. Few are so dramatic but all are life-expanding. We see our world on every flight as others seldom see it.

And from this unique perspective, we may understand our world more fully. It’s a noble thing and a unique gift. It makes the investment all the more worth it, despite the price.

Understand: I’m not encouraging “Lookie Lou’s” to go sightseeing and get in the way. The highways around Moore, Oklahoma, were jammed post-storm, as usual. I presume the airspace was the same. Lest you be tempted early in a future disaster, let me recall a bit of obscure but somewhat related aviation history where sightseers “got their’s.”

Researching AOPA PILOT’s predecessor, I once found its story on the famous 1947 Texas City disaster of freighter explosions and refinery fires, billed as one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. It still may be America’s worst industrial accident, killing over 500 and injuring more than 5,000. The AOPA angle? Turns out two flyers in a Piper buzzed in at 1,500 feet for a look-see just as a blast obliterated the whole place. Even at altitude, the fabric of their wings was blown/burned off and down they came.

AOPA wrote them up as valiant pilots and martyred “heroes.” Perhaps someone with local knowledge can enlighten me, but I thought AOPA was polishing the apple. If those guys were sightseers, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong reason. Nota Bene in case you’re tempted.

With such exceptions noted, think of your license as a ticket to see the world as few can see it – even if millions today can look sideways out of an airliner every day. YOU have a front-row seat and the freedom to go (carefully) where it’s happening. “It” may be a great island, a fun occasion or – perchance — a first-hand look at what nature and human events have wrought.

Savor the opportunity. Partake responsibly.

© 2013 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved


  1. John Valentine says


    Just wanted to thank you for your thoughts. Not only do I agree with them, but I’ll amplify:

    After assisting in post-disaster relief for some time, the two groups that are just asking for it are, 1. The subset of Lookies who are disaster ghouls. Can’t say enough bad things about these subhumans, so I won’t, other than to say they probably occupy their own circle of Hell. 2. Idiots. You know, chowderheads, the terminally confused, them folks what just stand in front of a speeding locomotive, etc. They generally get someone else hurt trying to protect them while injured or trapped people go begging for help. If you can’t move ’em, ignore ’em – think of it as evolution in action, and carry on helping others.

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