Saturday, May 23, 2009

Mapping Things Out


All pilots are interested in maps. Well, no, but all pilots should be interested in maps. Well, maybe no, but I am fascinated by maps.

Over Spring Break we stopped at the museum at the first capital of Utah, in Fillmore. The old capital building houses a nice museum; we learned a lot about the European settlement of the Great Basin. There is a small National Guard armory next to the museum, where a friendly Guardsman gave my daughter and I an in-depth tour of a Paladin howitzer; she even got to position the gun.

The gift shop had a nice book collection. I picked up Mapping and Imagination in the Great Basin: A Cartographic History, by Richard Francaviglia. Francaviglia details the development of mapping in the Great Basin, which is roughly defined by the states of Nevada and Utah. "Hmm, one of those books that only I would like," I said.

Well, I was right, at least about me liking it. It followed me on recent trips to Boston (on United) and Truckee (in the Cherokee Six). My flights to and from Truckee took me on a diagonal cut across the whole Great Basin. Francaviglia describes the mapping of Virginia City, the Great Salt Lake Desert, various mountain ranges, Pyramid Lake and Lake Tahoe, and the course of the Humboldt River (which I had generally followed). I had just flown over most of it, at fairly low altitude, so my mental pictures were recent and vivid.

Plus, I had been studying the Salt Lake, Klamath Falls, and San Francisco sectional charts, with their effectively infinite amount of information. Francaviglia shows how depictions of terrain have changed over the years. I (indirectly) learned a lot about the imagery on sectional charts.

I have done a fair amount of flying in the Great Basin, including a week based in Winnemucca fighting monstrous wildfires, several trips to Battle Mountain, and glider flying in Minden, NV. And there was the epic two-day (each way) journey to Watsonville, California in my 65 horsepower Taylorcraft. (I followed the same truck from Wells to Winnemucca.)

Explorers came successively on foot, by horse, by wagon, by railroad, by automobile, and finally by air. This does not include our ilk: nobody following a victor airway can possibly be an explorer. But, as Francaviglia points out, the social context of maps includes more than exploration.

The last chapter is about the period 1950 - 2000, and includes some fascinating examples of airline route maps. United's map showing the route from Salt Lake to San Francisco was best. Why? It included navaids! In those days, the navaids were four-course ranges, and the route was the west leg of the Salt Lake range (which was notoriously unreliable), then a heading to pass north of Wendover and intercept the east leg of the Elko range, crossing Battle Mountain and Fallon before crossing Reno, intercepting the northeast leg of the Sacramento range, then to Oakland and, finally San Francisco, roughly following V32, V200, and V6.

Remarkably, the map even shows navaids that are not part of the route.

And this has led to a revelation about airlines and their attitude about passengers:

  • Which airline gave passengers a route map including navaids? United.

  • Which airline lets passengers listen to ATC on the in-flight entertainment system? United.

  • Which airline, pre-9/11, had the most generous jumpseat policy? United.


  • On United, the passenger is a crew member! The only other airline that comes close to this is Southwest, although in a different way. Southwest pilots seem to be more in love with aviation than pilots from other airlines, and more than once a Southwest pilot, seeing the "Crew" tags on my luggage, has come over to strike up a flying conversation.



    I used to carry charts when I flew as a passenger. But now this might seem like suspicious behavior, so I make myself leave them behind, at least for familiar routes. A couple of years ago, riding in a 737 from Bangkok to Krabi, though, I couldn't resist, and my daughter and I noted the cites and airports as we flew by.

    If nothing else, it keeps you ahead of the airplane.

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