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Postcards from the sky

2005.04.27 — Culture | Postcards | Travel | by Derek Jensen

Notre Dame stadium

Notre Dame University stadium. (hi res)

I fly a lot, so I occasionally take pictures in or from airplanes. It's hard to get a good photo from an airplane, tho, especially since I usually fly at night and sit on the aisle. Even when I do fly during the day and sit by a window, the window is usually dirty or streaky or situated directly over a wing. Maybe someday I'll get a good pic of a gremlin.


I don't have a lot to say about these pics, but the gremlin joke reminded me of something, so I'll write about William Shatner.


Cincinnati from above

Cincinnati from above. (hi res)

I didn't really watch Third Rock from the Sun very often. My taste in humor tends toward the dry and intellectual or the completely absurd, but this moment achieved the rare combination of the two (well, rare outside Monty Python, anyway, where it's pretty much continuous).


It's hard to imagine how anyone could really miss the show altogether. It was one of those shows that seems to be on three times a day, every day, all out of sequence, so you spend the first five or ten minutes figuring out if Sally is still dating the cop in this one. I found that a quick indicator was the length of Tommy's hair.


Clouds with sun and bird

Clouds with the sun and a bird. (hi res)

If you're really not familiar with the show, I'll give you a bit of background. An alien military commander (John Lithgow) and his team of researchers live on Earth, studying humans in their natural habitat, in the guise of the semi-normal Solomon family. Their lack of familiarity with humans and general dimwittedness make up 99% of the comedy.


They answer to the Big Giant Head, usually thru a hilarious bit of physical comedy in which Harry (French Stewart) goes into convulsions, loses his identity, and channels messages directly from the home office, often in the form of pointless and annoying directives.


Clouds in a blue sky

Clouds in a blue sky. (hi res)

Yes, this is a lot like how Mork had to report to Orsen at the end of every episode of Mork & Mindy, but the whole show was pretty similar, but loopier, not as sickly sweet, and with far less cocaine.


On this occasion, the Big Giant Head was coming to visit in person, or rather in human form, to be played by William Shatner. The Solomons had to go to pick him up at the airport (for no apparent reason other than to set up the joke). And when he gets off the plane, Dick (Lithgow) asks him (as everyone who picks someone up at the airport does) how his flight went.


CRJ-70 wing at 25,000 feet

CRJ-70 wing at 25,000 feet, sans gremlin. (hi res)

The Big Giant Head says, rather bewildered, that it was okay, except that (just paraphrasing here), "Out the window, I kept seeing a horrible creature on the wing, tearing off parts of the plane. But no one else saw it, so they wouldn't believe me."


And Dick says, utterly flabbergasted, "Oh my God! The same thing happened to me!"


If you don't get it, you probably aren't familiar with The Twilight Zone. In one famous episode of that series ("Terror at 30,000 Feet"), William Shatner played a passenger on a plane who kept seeing a gremlin (a legendary creature who makes machinery malfunction) on the wing, tearing parts off the plane. No one else saw it, tho, so they just thought he was nuts.


Light sky at 25,000 feet

Light sky at 25,000 feet. (hi res)

Then, in the movie version of TheTwilight Zone, one part was a remake of that classic episode, with John Lithgow in the Shatner role.


It's such an inspired gag, with the right casting to back it up (not to mention daring the uncertainty that the audience would even get it), that it makes me wonder which came first: casting Shatner in the perfect, over-the-top space commander role or the gag about the Twilight Zone episode he and Lithgow had in common.



Dramatic sky at 25,000 feet

Dramatic sky at 25,000 feet. (hi res)

These shots of the cloud "floor" at 25,000 feet come in pairs (there are a couple more on the More postcards page). The pale blue versions are closest to what I actually saw out the window, but Paint Shop Pro's One Step Photo Fix "corrected" the blue tint and lack of contrast, producing a dramatic effect that looks like we were flying over an enormous thunderhead or maybe the surface of the moon.


In reality, it was a sunny day above a light cover of fluffy white, cotton-candy clouds that broke up frequently.


The pics of Notre Dame (full name: L'Université de Notre Dame de Football Américain) were taken on a different day as we happened to come in from the east for once instead of from the west and so flew over the campus.

South Bend farms

South Bend, Indiana farm fields. (hi res)


I grew up in the South Bend area, but I didn't fly commercially until I was in my 20s. The very first time I rode in a plane, I was about ten years old. I won some sort of contest at church, and a member of the congregation who was a small-aircraft pilot took me and a couple of other kids up for a spin. Great fun.


The next time I flew, I was about 24, out of college (Purdue, not ND), and working for a small local newspaper as editorial assistant and photographer. I went to the Blueberry Festival in Plymouth, which has a small airstrip of its own, and got to fly in a Fokker F-7 from the early 30s.


What a trip.

Clouds with sun

Clouds with sun. (hi res)


It had doped canvas walls, three big (but not especially powerful) radial engines, sling seats, and a high-mounted wing. The only thing really solid inside was the aluminum grate floor that the seat frames were bolted to.


It sat about 10, as I recall, and probably didn't go much more than 100 miles an hour, or higher than 3 or 4,000 feet, but it was quite a rush. The low speed and altitude made for a great view, but the crummy old windows ensured that I didn't get any decent shots.


Like I said... It's hard to get a good photo from an airplane.


More postcards from the sky....


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