If you don’t already know me, I have a thing for maps and geography. It’s an absolute delight to see the landscape from the air. I’ve been bringing my GPS with me when I fly, mostly to keep track of flight progress and to identify what I’m seeing out the window. But it’s also interesting to see how the FAA routes flights. Spoiler Alert: it’s not a direct path between cities.

The two tracks above show the flight path between Phoenix and Cancun in both directions. The straight line between the two airports would cross into Mexico from New Mexico and remain over Mexican airspace except for a few points at the lower spurs of Texas. In fact, I was sure that this is what we were doing, but hadn’t paid close attention to the borders on the map. Of course, later it hit me that we were being routed to stay in American airspace as long as possible, which seemed odd for a flight headed to Mexico in the first place.

I wasn’t able to get tracks of the flights between Spokane and Phoenix. Apparently, the Airbus A319 is better at blocking GPS signal than a Boeing 757. But for the most part, I can identify landmark features by sight along that route. Overall, the flights were nice. We flew over Hells Canyon and I saw the expansive Frank Church wilderness (on the way down) and the Wallowa Mountains (on the way up). The Wallowas still have way more snow on them than their eastern neighbors. We flew past the Ruby Mountains in northern Nevada, the same mountains I was amazed to see from the ground when we drove down there two years ago. We flew past Cedar Breaks and Zion National Park, and we flew over the Grand Canyon, the first time I had actually been able to see it from the air. On the flight home, we flew right over Lewiston and Pullman before landing in Spokane. had I been on the other side of the aircraft, I would have been able to see my house from above.

On the flights between Phoenix and Cancun, I saw White Sands, the Guadalupe Mountains, and then the flat lands of Texas. Over the Gulf, I noticed spots of brown, probably oil stains from all of the drilling. Once we hit the Yucatan, I noticed a decidedly different terrain. Everything was green and fairly unbroken. It’s mostly undisturbed jungle with a few roads and dwellings. But for the most part, a sea of green. Quite a contrast to the American west, which is brown and arid, but also carved up with roads and farm fields. Of course, the geology of the Yucatan likely makes it a poor place for large scale farming, and the jungle is now largely protected for its ecological value.

I find it fascinating to look at the world from above. It provides a sense of scale and context to the places that we use and enjoy, and really cements how connected everything really is.