How the spotting of planes allows me to get through the pandemic.
The skies over southwestern Maine get more interesting every day after 1 p.m. That’s when long-haul flights – from Paris, Cairo and Doha – begin to arrive over North America after their hour-long crossings of the Atlantic Ocean. The next stages of their journey will disperse them across the United States to Chicago O’Hare, John F. Kennedy, Logan and Hartsfield-Jackson. But for now, their fuselages, tiny as toys hanging from a fishing line at 35,000 feet, are above my house where, from my uneven lawn, I have become an air traffic control center for one. only woman. My tools: a green folding camping chair, a palm-sized pair of binoculars, a straw hat, and my favorite app, Plane Finder.
Much like bird watching, tail watching (or airplane watching) is a hobby for hobbyists who want to learn more about who or what is flying above them. in the sky. And as with any hobby in the 21st century, technology has improved a tail watcher’s relationship with his subject. You’ve seen versions of the interfaces of these apps on electronic elevator screens or on news broadcasts before: a scanned map of the United States crawling with small animated planes, each representing a commercial flight from Wichita to Dallas, from Seattle to Spokane. Today, applications like Plane Finder or FlightAware provide us with minute-by-minute aviation details with pinpoint accuracy. These apps can tell you the airline, aircraft model, altitude, ground speed, and flight path of any aircraft at any given time. This is how noon became my favorite time to allow my normally indoor cat to snoop around our garden while I greeted the flights from my newly acquired lawn chair: she explored the ground while I explored the sky.
Previously, all you needed to spot planes was to walk to the outskirts of an airfield to marvel at planes taking off and landing. For years, my holiest place in New York City has been a garbage-strewn parking lot in Jamaica Bay at the end of one of four runways at John F. Kennedy Airport. This is where I spent Sundays – the most anxious day – watching planes take off and land at a steady pace, like a heartbeat, the pace of the journey soothing my nervous mind. But when COVID-19 began to spread across the United States, the skies cleared and planes were stranded, giving the atmosphere over New York City an apocalyptic feel and dashing one of my favorite – and most therapeutic – hobbies. Suddenly, like everything else in 2020, my tail-spotting inclinations changed to accommodate the pandemic.
My life has also changed. Soon we moved to be closer to family in Maine, which is anything but a commercial airline hub. Although the Portland Jetport is technically “international”, it only handles a few dozen flights per day, compared to 800 for the JFK. The skies are generally sparse in rural Maine, that is, until around noon, when you often hear the echo of a jet roaring overhead. And so, I downloaded Plane Finder.
Between 2014 and 2015, many flight apps saw the number of users increase. During this year there have been a number of high profile aviation tragedies that have aroused people’s inner investigators. Most appealing to the general public was the mystery of Malaysian Air Flight 370, which took off from Kuala Lumpur on the night of March 8, 2014 and apparently flew into an abyss. Research teams spent months scouring the Indian Ocean for wrecks, while laymen like myself scoured the internet for theories and clues. Courtney Love even got into the action by posting her MH 370 hypotheses on Twitter. The world was waking up to the idea that aviation provided an eternal flame of mystery, an idea that was already a central tenet of the tail spotting community. Tail spotting can be a calming sky-gazing habit, but its community also sees itself as a coterie of amateur sleuths.
Using flight trackers like the one I access from my iPhone, tail watchers have turned their attention to mysteries big and small. The community quickly recognized that another Malaysian Air flight was shot down while traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, and that there was suspicious activity with the flights taken by Saudi officials surrounding the murder of journalist Jamal. Khashoggi. Last fall, tail watchers, as well as mainstream media, speculated on the absence planes that appeared to suggest the airspace over Joe Biden’s Delaware home had become newly restricted – a sign he had won the 2020 presidential election before it was officially called? This theory was later debunked and we learned that restricted airspace was normal, but the desire for concrete answers about the election made us search the skies for clues. Between the successful cases, there are smaller cases. Recently on Twitter I watched #AvGeeks trying to figure out why an Air Canada flight was heading to Seoul returned to toronto only an hour after the start of his trip, speculating a medical emergency on board. It’s the low-profile aviation puzzles that back up what I’ve always believed: The details we collect from flight tracks – their depictions of tiny planes crossing the globe, each with their own history – have a lot to tell us. on human behavior. Where are we going? How can we use this information to better understand the world? It’s a surprising place to look, but a flight tracker like Plane Finder, more than anything else, gives us data about ourselves.
What is gleaned from flight data is sometimes more complex than the date a plane pulled out of a door: we learn that authoritarian governments will do all they can to silence a single journalist, which we are. impatient – perhaps too impatient – to resolve a contentious election with too close call margins, and that a mentally ill pilot can build his own flight simulator and rehearse a clandestine mission before diving a 777 with 239 passengers on board in the Indian Ocean. It’s a lot of steps to triangulate a single plane’s trip or what it means to us, which is why #AvGeeks involvement isn’t just about supporting the app. Sharing this information is at the heart of the spirit of the plane watcher’s relationship with the sky. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French aviator and aviation philosopher, wrote: “Life has taught us that love is not about looking at each other but looking together outward in the same direction. The plane showed us the true face of the earth.
The days of the pandemic were passing. My indoor cat, with enough visits to the yard, was turning into an outdoor cat. I knew without looking at my phone that the first plane overhead at noon was the Qatar Airways flight to Boston. Yet there was one question that would remain unanswered. Filled with information about transmission rates and handwashing routines, my mind was hungry for moments of the harmless indulgence of a daydream: Who was flying in a pandemic? Towards the end of the summer, I realized that I wasn’t using Plane Finder to solve mysteries rather than to create them. A survival technique, you might say.
Too gentle to actually fit in with the social media tail watchers, I watched the watchers and as they freely exchanged theories and facts between platforms. I felt part of their community because of my silent participation. I gathered my own data while reading the news: some people stole because they had to, but others did so because they had the privilege of not having to worry about the risks of contracting COVID- 19 or because they did not believe in science. My disbelief metamorphosed into rage as I saw it in my tail spotting sightings as proof that some humans will use whatever logic is available to make exceptions for themselves. Even in the event of a pandemic.
More cathartically, however, the planes also gave me a sense of escape. Realizing that I was above the earth, rushing to a new destination when my only one in months had been the grocery store, was repairman. Airplanes have always amazed me with human innovation while I am otherwise exhausted by humans in general. The technology dazzles me – millions of people in the atmosphere above us at any given time is in itself remarkable, but this past summer, looking skyward at the distant sound of jet engines was one of the only ways in which I could find peace. It stoned me in a strange and satisfying way. The comings and goings of airplanes are the amalgamation of computing, engineering, navigation, commerce, exploration and, most importantly, humanity.
For centuries, humans have looked skyward in navigation, exploration, and blessing. We have used the sky to cross oceans by canoe, to tilt our chins skyward and pray for loved ones or desired results, and to simply spend the idle time identifying shapes and animals in the plump curves. of a cumulus cloud. My grandfather had a ritual of going out every night to look at the moon. Colonel in the Air Force, he had fought in several major wars. I always suspected that her nighttime moon-watching routine came from her so many hours in the sky. The moon had kept him company when he was in the air. Why shouldn’t he return his company from the ground?
From my little corner of the earth, I used my fear of the technology required for humans to take flight to forgive them. As we failed so deeply as a society, knowing that an overhead plane potentially carried life-saving vaccines tucked away in their cold boxes helped me remember that there were shiny data points too. , a small yellow plane conscientiously crossing the screen of an application like a shooting star. .
Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.