Views on the Way to Vegas

The shadow of the plane is surrounded by a circular ring of colors, in an aerial view of the Grand Canyon.

I’ve always loved looking out the window of the plane during flights, and I almost always request window seats, even though aisle seats are convenient in a lot of ways. But seeing the Earth from the air still gives me a sense of wonder.

I flew out of Cleveland with wonderful late afternoon sun hitting the downtown buildings and the nearly full moon rising as we banked to head west.

A view of Cleveland from an airplane

I ended up with some flight delays so instead of arriving in Las Vegas late that evening, we arrived the next day around noon. This was terrible for many reasons, but the bright spot in the travel delay was that the views from the sky were absolutely amazing. We flew over the Grand Canyon with beautiful light, snow on the north rim and south rim, and some patchy clouds.

An aerial view of the eastern edge of the Grand Canyon
The eastern edge of the Grand Canyon, with some snow on the North Rim and South Rim.

Fortunately, I heard the passenger in front of me (another physicist on their way to the meeting) exclaim when they looked out the window. When I looked out the window, I saw a glory (also known as a pilot’s glory), a full circle rainbow effect centered on the shadow of the plane. It was amazing. I was absolutely glued to the window for the 10 minutes that it lasted. (If you didn’t see the glory with the Grand Canyon in the very top picture on this page, scroll back up and look again!)

A full circle rainbow of colors surrounds the shadow of a plane on clouds.
This image of the glory shows multiple orders of the colors.

One fascinating effect was when we went through a region of clouds where the tops of the clouds were really uneven, so the clouds were much closer and then much farther from us. Because the sun’s rays are parallel here on earth, the shadow of the plane is always the same size as the plane. When the clouds were closer to the plane, the shadow was also closer and so it appears larger. As we went over the region of uneven clouds, the shadow kept jumping back and forth, bigger and smaller.

A full circle rainbow of colors surrounds the shadow of a plane on clouds.
The clouds were closer in this image, so the plane shadow appears larger. Unfortunately, my phone camera focused on the window here rather than the clouds beyond so it’s a little more fuzzy.

After a non-stop meeting in Las Vegas, I flew home on an overnight flight to Charlotte. That was less than pleasant. But the early morning flight from Charlotte back to Cleveland was gorgeous, as the low rays of the sun skimmed over the top of the clouds. I’ve been paying a lot more attention to the clouds since a Junior IS self-design project in 2021, so Melita, these pictures are for you! Thanks for making me more observant!

An aerial view shows the tops of an array of clouds with dramatic shadows.
The low angle of the sun highlighted the texture on top of the clouds.
An aerial view shows the tops of an array of clouds with dramatic shadows.
The moon is just visible setting in the distance.

And, again, the nearly full moon was visible, but setting this time as my trip came to an end and I returned to the ground.