United 803: Aerial Tour of Siberia

Fourth in a series about journeys to Japan in 2005 and 2007

The opportunity to see the world from the window seat of a plane at 30,000+ feet is one of the great privileges of living in this era.  In 1900, even the wealthiest person on earth could not experience what millions of people are able to see today – getting the grand tour of our beautiful planet from the air while traveling rapidly from place to place.  Many flights have unremarkable scenery with flat, haze-choked cities.  Perhaps that’s why so many people, even those with window seats, barely look up from their reading material or electronics for their entire flight.  On the other hand, so many people miss out on a feast for the eyes that’s as easy to access as lifting their window shades.

Sunset over the Atlantic Ocean seen from a Southwest Airlines flight from San Juan to Baltimore. Lowell Silverman photography, 2015
Sunset over the Atlantic Ocean seen from a Southwest Airlines flight from San Juan to Baltimore. Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

Over the years, I’ve seen some spectacular scenery from the air.  The Alps in Europe, the Rocky Mountains in the western United States, the snowfields of Alaska, Utah’s Great Salt Lake, Mt. Etna in Sicily, and a number of indescribably beautiful aerial sunsets all come to mind.  One flight stands out above all others as having the most spectacular scenery of any I’ve experienced: United Airlines Flight 803 from Washington Dulles to Tokyo Narita back in 2007.

Flights between the eastern United States and Japan follow great circle routes which fly over largely unspoiled terrain in Canada and Alaska.  There appears to be quite some variation in the routes from day to day, which I assume is largely the result of weather patterns.  A rather southern route may cut across western Canada, southern Alaska, and stay out to sea off the Kamchatka Peninsula.  A more northerly route, close to the shortest possible great circle distance, may take the flight across northwestern Canada and central Alaska before crossing over the Bering Sea or Kamchatka.

Sometimes, however, the flight path goes even further north, skipping Alaska entirely and instead passing over the Arctic Ocean and eastern Siberia before heading south to Japan.  Counterintuitively, the nature of the great circle means that this more northerly route may only add a few hundred extra miles, a rather insignificant addition to a roughly 7000 mile long flight.

Ice of the Arctic Ocean seen from the flight between Washington Dulles and Tokyo Narita. Lowell Silverman photography, 2007
Ice of the Arctic Ocean seen from the flight between Washington Dulles and Tokyo Narita. Lowell Silverman photography, 2007

On October 26-27, 2007, I was lucky enough to experience a flight along a northern route, giving me an aerial tour of Russia, a country I’ve never set foot in.  I was traveling with my father, who was kind enough to give me the window seat.  The flight departed Dulles in the afternoon.  The late autumn sun set as we flew northwest over the Gulf of Boothia in northern Canada and out over the Arctic Ocean.  Even in the dark, it was fairly easy to see the light colored ice flows below.  At the time, I was disappointed that we’d miss seeing Alaska, which had been a highlight of my first flight to Japan in 2005.  I had no idea that this route would be every bit as spectacular.

One of the first images of Siberia I captured during the flight
One of the first infrared images of Siberia I captured during the flight, part of the Verkhoyansk Range

Night only lasted about two or three hours on this westward flight.  The most impressive scenery came about an hour after the sun came up when we made landfall over eastern Siberia.  Not long after, we flew over what the in-flight display identified as the “Verkhoyanskiy Mountains” (apparently the correct name is the Verkhoyansk Range).  I regret that I didn’t know about FlightAware back then, since its position logs might have helped me identify the geographical features I was observing in a way the plane’s flight position map’s limited information could not.  Then again, it might not have helped given that there seems to be a dearth of English-language information about Siberian mountain ranges.

Update on January 27, 2016: One source I found was Jeffrey Tayler’s travelogue about a journey down the Lena River, River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia’s Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny.  Tayler’s description of the Verkhoyansk as “bankless escarpments, in grim walls of granite” is poetic.  He also alludes to the fact that for all the beauty I had appreciated from the air, this was also a land where so many people were forced to labor and die:

“Two days later, as solitary, widely spaced clouds dumped rain here and there across a boundless river vista, the Verkhoyansk Mountains reared above the taiga on the northern shore.  Gloomy leaden irruptions, pitiless rock sentries of gulag toil and death, the Verkhoyansk, the remotest and most ill famed mountains of Russia[…]We stared at the Verkhoyansk in disbelief.  How far we had come!  Yet the sun emerged to warm our cheeks.  Faced with the very landscape of doom for so many Russians, I asked myself, paradoxically, What more could I want than to be free and healthy, traveling down a great river, not knowing where I’ll pass the night or what new people I’ll meet?”

Levels in Photoshop Elements can help save an aerial image from low contrast caused by haze and shooting through glass.
Levels in Photoshop Elements can help save a color aerial image from low contrast caused by haze and shooting through glass.  Most of the infrared images, on the other hand, needed little or no post-processing.

My Canon Digital Rebel XTi, an SLR modified to shoot near infrared, was perfect for capturing the aerial views of the Siberian mountains.  Even far from civilization, there’s quite a bit of haze visible when you’re looking down from 37,000 feet.  Haze affects the blue portion of the visual spectrum particularly strongly; the infrared camera, though still having some sensitivity in the visual spectrum, was less strongly affected by haze than my color camera.  In addition, areas out of direct sunlight, as well as water, reflect virtually no infrared radiation and remain dark, so the images had very high contrast without the need for heavy processing in Photoshop.  Unless otherwise noted, the infrared images listed were converted from RAW and converted to black and white with just a little added contrast.

Verkhoyansk Range
Verkhoyansk Range.  Converted from RAW and exposure corrected.

About an hour and a half after the Verkhoyansk Range, we came to the next highlight of the trip, identified by the flight display as the Stanovoy Mountains.  I was impressed by the variety of terrain; it wasn’t just endless snowcapped mountains.  There were rivers with multiple ancient changes in course still evident, oddly shaped hills, and flat plains, all without the slightest sign of human impact.  If I had been a geologist, I may have better appreciated the features I was observing.  Since I wasn’t, I approached the sightseeing from an aesthetic standpoint as a photographer instead.  Still, I remain curious about some of the unfamiliar landforms visible from the air.  I hope one day someone will be able to explain the peculiar sights I recorded.  (If you have some knowledge of geology, feel free to comment below with your observations!)

According to the flight location display, these are part of the Stanovoy Mountains
The Stanovoy Mountains

It occurred to me how lucky I was to be able to see these beautiful views.  Not only was it a privilege that I could afford to travel in the first place, but this was terrain that relatively few people had seen and even fewer had explored.  I was also cognizant of the fact that before the end of the Cold War less than two decades before, it would have been quite impossible for someone flying on a American airline to be seeing this at all (at least, I assume so based on what happened to Korean Air Lines Flight 007).

A strange set of hills in the Stanovoy Mountains that remind me more of the veins of a leaf than mountains. How did they form?
A strange set of hills in the Stanovoy Mountains that remind me more of the veins of a leaf than mountains. How did they form?

Unless I take a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway someday, United 803 may be the closest I’ll get to experiencing Siberia  –  and of course, taking that train would provide a completely different vantage point.

Oxbow
The many changes in this Siberian river’s course are etched into the land.  I believe the horseshoe shapes to the right of the river are oxbows formed when the river cuts off and subsequently moves away from an old meander.

We’d been over Siberia for about two hours before I spotted any signs of human habitation, a small unidentified city at the south end of the Stanovoys.

I'm quite curious about the geological processes captured in this photo. At first glance, I wondered if it was a plate boundary. How did this line of mountains end up so straight, abruptly ending at the plain?
I’m quite curious about the geological processes captured in this photo in the Stanovoy Mountains. At first glance, I wondered if it was a plate boundary. How did this line of mountains end up so straight, abruptly ending at the plain? (Converted from RAW and cropped slightly.)

After about three hours flying over Russia, we headed out over the cloud covered Sea of Japan.  The flight landed in Narita amidst intense rain from Tropical Storm Faxai, an almost-typhoon which had skirted the shore of Honshu.  After passing through Japanese customs, we caught the Narita Express into Tokyo.

Tropical storm
Tropical Storm Faxai welcomes you to Japan…

We arrived at our hotel in Shinjuku after dark.  The storm didn’t faze the crowd of people patiently waiting their turn to enter the recently opened Krispy Kreme donut shop nearby, Japan’s first.  In fact, the line went out the door and a good distance down the street.  I wanted to tell them that, as someone familiar with donuts, my advice was that they simply weren’t worth braving a storm for.  Of course, if there’s one thing I learned during my study abroad in 2005, it’s that Japanese have very different tastes in baked goods than Americans.  Their breads tend to be quite sweet, so it’s no surprise that donuts would be popular with them.

View of Mt. Fuji from our hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo
View of Mt. Fuji from our hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo.  No post-processing needed.

The one thing you can say for the tropical storm is that it blew Tokyo’s customary pollution away…at least temporarily.  The morning after we arrived, we had a crystal clear view of Mt. Fuji from the upper floors of our hotel.  The smog was back by the following day, of course.

Date: Friday, October 26, 2007 to Saturday, October 27, 2007

Distance: 6746 miles (10856.6km) by great circle, actual flight distance unknown

Flight: United Airlines 803

Equipment: Boeing 777

Class: Economy

Cost per mile: $0.08/mile

Performance: Takeoff from IAD 1:03pm EDT (scheduled 12:41pm), landed at NRT  3:52pm JST (scheduled 3:35pm)

Duration: 13 hours, 49 minutes

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