I don’t fly a ton — maybe six or so times a year — but when I do, it’s often along the same predictable route. I’ve lived in the Northeast for exactly half of my life but grew up on the West Coast in the Seattle area, where my parents, grandmother and a decent number of childhood friends still live. The six-ish hour journey to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport from New York City, as viewed through an airplane window (I don’t do aisles, thank you very much) could be described like this: water, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the Great Lakes, flat, flat, flat, flat, mountains, flat, mountains, water.
When peering out that airplane window, sometimes I see natural and man-made landmarks that I can easy recognize and identify from 36,000 feet up.
Lake Michigan, that’s you, right?
Hello hinterlands of Spokane!
But usually I have zero clue as to what’s going on down there. As a flier who is both curious and nervous, I like to know what’s directly below me even when thick layers of clouds provide a visual obstruction. It makes me feel more settled, grounded and in-control knowing exactly where I am. Live flight trackers that also display altitude and speed help do help to center me — that is, if the aircraft even offers one as a "channel" on the seatback entertainment system. But more often than not, I want to know more. Many fliers couldn’t care less about the details — the lakes, the rivers, the interstates, the population centers, those weird circular fields that seem to stretch forever — of flyover country. Not me.
It may not make the lady next to you eating tuna salad magically disappear, but the Flyover Country app will fill you in on center pivot irrigation systems. (Photo: Soil Science/flickr)
Thank goodness for a newly released free offline app for iOS and Android called, aptly, Flyover Country. Harnessing a phone's GPS along with a sizable cache of information including maps, scientific databases and Wikipedia articles that reference points of interest along an indicated flight path, Flyover County enables fliers to explore the world below them. And all without forking over the cash for unreliable in-flight wireless.
You just need to plug in your final destination and the app will trace the projected flight path while downloading everything you wanted to know and more about the features you’ll be passing above on said flight path. The in-flight geology lesson, which pulls information from sources such as Wikipedia, the Paleobiology Database (unearthed fossils!) and Macrostrat (strange geological features!), and can be viewed entirely in airplane mode.
The app, conceived by a geology student and funded by the National Science Foundation, essentially functions as an interactive travel guide for aerial tourists. Geared to promote “geoscience outreach and data discovery,” it’s a fabulous way to kill time on a long-haul — or even short-haul — flight; an app that turns tedium into a learning experience.
Former University of Minnesota student Shane Loeffler came up with the concept of an educational mobile app for inquisitive fliers while peering out an airplane window traveling from the United Kingdom. back to Minnesota. “I was looking down from an airplane window and seeing this huge landscape and these geological features, and [wondering about] the landscape I was flying over,” Loeffler tells the Smithsonian.
Ann Myrbo, a geologist at the University of Minnesota and co-developer of the app, explains “The way Shane put it, the airplane seat is sort of a planetarium for the Earth. It’s a great way to inspire people to learn about the sciences.”
I hope that people will get an idea of the connectedness of geology and weather and humans and see the scales of things. There are these huge expanses of open spaces, but you can also see massive, massive evidence of human effects on the landscape, whether it’s dams backing up rivers, mines, deforestation or agriculture. There are these incredible natural features, but there is also a huge, ever-increasing human overprint to all of this.
As of now, Flyover Country is still a baby, a little wobbly and messy but still maturing. In addition to the app’s existing treasure trove of data and maps, the development team plans to collaborate with scientists in different fields to add even more information for a full in-flight, nerd-out experience.
There is, however, one obvious caveat: the app, which can also be employed during earthbound journeys like hikes and road trips, works best when flying through cloudless skies. However, as Mybro tells the Smithsonian, she hopes that, with the help of a meteorologist, info about cloud formations will be eventually added to the app so that if the view becomes obscured over most of North Dakota, users can still remain engaged and curious. That is, they won’t lose interest and revert back to the "Real Housewives of God-Know's-Where" for the remainder of the flight.
And lucky me, I just happen to have a cramped and not-so-relaxing six-hour flight coming up tomorrow. But now, I'm actually kind of looking forward to it.