Have you ever been flying over some remarkable landmark or unusual-looking city and wondered: what is that? I’ve always wanted, as I stared out from my window seat, an easy way to answer the question “What place is that?” or “Why are those big buildings all arranged like that over there?” Sometimes, on transcontinental or international flights you get a live update of your position, but even that doesn’t always answer your questions. What I want is a way to bookmark wherever I am when I have a question so I can figure it out later. And finally, these days, the tools are on my side.
I recently went on a business trip during which I had a layover in Washington, DC at the airport that I used to know as Washington National, but which is now Reagan National. Flying into DC, our plane passed over another large airport which had a funny hexagonal building at one end. I’ve played the airport guessing game before, and it’s pretty hard to remember enough distinctive details to track it down later. But now I have Google Earth: I can compare what I saw with what the satellite saw. In this case, I speculated that I was looking at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, and I further speculated that the big funny building was the hangar for Air Force One. This was, as we say in the business, a bullshit speculation. I have long known the value of making a confident and plausible assertion pass for knowledge. But it gets to be pretty thin soup if you do it enough. I want real answers. Once I got home, I opened up Google Earth, zoomed into eastern Maryland, and there was exactly the building I saw from the air, and it was labeled as… the hangar for Air Force One. Speculation is cheap, but when you get to exchange your bullshit dollars for real money, that’s darn satisfying.
The tools are getting better all the time. Not only can you use the web to follow the ground track of a moving plane, you can go to fboweb.com to see, in three dimensions, the current location of your plane. I didn’t do this in my case, but theoretically it would have been easy to look out the window, note the time, and then compare that time with the 3-d trajectory of the flight. Where was I? There I was. What was that? Air Force One. Simple.