Cockpit Chronicles: Come along and enjoy the view

“Descend to 1-3-0.”

“Descend to 1-2-0.”

I found myself listening to London Control while admiring one of the all-time greatest views I’ve ever seen.

“Slow to 220 knots. Fly heading 1-7-0.”

As we banked to the right, I looked over my right shoulder at the London eye, a blue ferris wheel that stands out among the amber lights struggling for relevance against the sunrise.

No one should be up this early. Most of London is still asleep, and even if they were awake, they wouldn’t be seeing the view we were witnessing. The lights of the city, the bridges crossing the Thames river and the sunrise that blankets the buildings with more light after every turn of our holding pattern makes me pause for a moment to realize just why this job is the most visually rewarding of any occupation.

As we turned to the right one more time, I began to ponder whether an astronaut would actually prefer the variety of these spectacular sights that a mere ‘low-level’ pilot can see.

A 777 ahead of us was still dark enough to cover the city lights. Even Mike, the captain with close to 40 years in the air, was taken by the scene. “That’s just incredible” he said as the airliner banked to the right and peeled away from us a thousand feet below.

I had to resist the temptation to pull out my camera. I had taken some photos earlier, at 12,000 feet, above the 10,000 foot floor where we can’t allow a camera to distract us during the more critical ‘sterile period’ of our arrival into Heathrow.

So often I wish I could save the five most interesting things my eye sees on a flight. I have to try to capture whatever I can and post them here or on Flickr.

It was a couple of well timed views like this that inspired me to post a picture from every flight with a small caption on a blog years ago. Then I’d write more. And then more. Finally leading to the Cockpit Chronicles.

It’d be so much easier if I could just bring you along in the cockpit jumpseat.

That morning I filmed a few clips while above 10,000 feet that are almost like being there. Here’s what spinning around Guildford, England looked like.

Coming home from London, three and a half hours into the flight, we came upon a view I hadn’t seen yet in the eight years I’ve been flying across the Atlantic.

Our route of flight was far more northerly–nearly 200 miles north of any track I’d been on, in fact. We would be crossing directly over the southern tip of Greenland. This time I’d be ready. Should the clouds allow, I was sure to get some pictures or a video clip of the landscape below. In the past, I’ve seen Greenland from 59 and 60 degrees north latitude, which put the ice covered island just off in the distance. Unfortunately, clouds usually cover most of the island.

This time we were at 62 degrees north, passing over jagged mountain tops that weren’t obscured by clouds, but surrounded by silky glaciers that resembled low level cirrus clouds. In fact, it was hard to tell if the snow below was actually cloud cover.

The captain made a PA and I called back to our flight attendants. They needed to see this. A view of Greenland they’d likely never forget.

Of course, you’re welcome to take a look as well:

A piloting career may not be what it used to be. Speeds have changed. The technology has changed. Security procedures and threats have changed. But one thing that has always remained remarkable in this job, even in my grandpa’s era, has been the view.

Those lower altitudes may be filled with more detail, but the higher flight levels can give a wonderful sense of perspective. And sometimes a little perspective is just what we need. I certainly got my fill on this trip.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @veryjr