Ask a Pilot with Spencer: Christmas Lights from Above

Pilot Spencer Marker in the cockpit

In our Ask a Pilot series, pilot Spencer Marker answers one of your aviation-related questions each week. See past installments here and submit your own to whitney@johnnyjet.com.

The question

Can you see Christmas lights while flying at Christmas and what does it look like?

—Oine Kimble

The answer

Hello there! With the holidays rapidly approaching, it seemed there would be no better time for answering a holiday-themed question. Also, I felt like it’s a great time to share one of my favorite flying stories.

You can absolutely see Christmas lights while flying at night. In fact, my fellow crewmembers and I have great seats for a lot of festive holiday displays (Independence Day fireworks shows are my personal favorite).  

As with Christmas light displays on the ground, the view is much better the closer you are. Passengers can get the best views of holiday decorations while the aircraft is either departing the airport on its initial climb out, or while on approach. The benefit of seeing all the lights from the air is that you get to literally see ALL the lights! But since the aircraft is flying fast, you have to look quickly because the faster you go, the more difficult they are to see!

Unfortunately, when the airplane is at its cruise altitude, most of the lights of normal Christmas displays are drowned out by the presence of other ambient light, namely sodium-vapor lighting. These yellowish lights are the primary man-made lighting we see from the air and are often much brighter than consumer Christmas lights. In addition, the altitude we fly at also degrades our view of holiday decorations. Moisture in the atmosphere restricts our ability to see faint lighting when at our cruising altitudes. So, make sure to get a good look when the airplane is down low.

One of my favorite flying stories was during this time of year. When I was younger, I had the privilege of flying my mother and my aunt in a small, four-seat Cessna 172 around my hometown of Topeka, KS, for the sole purpose of looking at Christmas lights. I was a young pilot (I had recently earned my private pilot’s license) and was happy to be sharing my passion for aviation with members of my family. I think my mom and aunt simply enjoyed our unique perspective of the Christmas festivities!

We stayed at a safe altitude and were able to get a good look at the lights all over town as we zipped through the chilly December air that night. And about an hour after we took off, we touched down back at the local municipal airport. It was one of the most memorable experience of my time in aviation and I still keep a photo from that night displayed in our home.

For those interested in taking in the sights of the season from a higher vantage point, aviation businesses all over the country offer holiday sightseeing flights in everything from helicopters to vintage WWII aircraft. In my earlier days in aviation, the company I flew for used to offer sightseeing flights over the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, MO.

Thanks for the question this week! I know with the hustle and bustle of the holiday travel season, simple things like taking the time to look out the window at the world passing below can seem unimportant. But sometimes, taking the time to notice simple things like Christmas lights going by make the stress of holiday travel a little more bearable.

Thanks again for the question! And if you have a burning aviation question or if there’s something you’d like cleared up, drop us a line at Whitney@johnnyjet.com to get your question featured in an upcoming “Ask a Pilot” column.

Tailwinds,

—Spencer

Spencer Marker

About the Author

Spencer Marker
From a young age, Spencer has been fascinated by aviation. And as his aviation career took off, that passion has turned into a love for all things travel. Adventurous and always taking the road less traveled, he seeks travel that changes his perception of the world. Highlights from his journey include visiting Chernobyl in the Ukraine, skydiving in Switzerland, and SCUBA diving in Colombia. Spencer is currently a pilot for a major airline and resides in Redondo Beach, CA.

4 Comments on "Ask a Pilot with Spencer: Christmas Lights from Above"

  1. Great job! My most memorable flight involving Christmas lights was last Christmas Eve. I was flying from LAX to Toronto on the red eye. Since I couldn’t sleep, I had my head pressed against the cold window admiring the scenery, while looking for the fat guy in a red suit and sleigh, just like I did as a kid. I was then awestruck by the scenery as we flew over Utah and Colorado. I wished the Gogo inflight WiFi was working so I would have known exactly where we were (it later worked when I asked the flight attendant to reset it). Thanks to the full moon, blanket of snow, rugged mountains and the soft colors, it turned into a magical experience. In a small patch of land, the houses were spread apart but each lit up in a different color. I saw red, green, blue and yellow — they looked like Christmas presents dotting the snowy landscape. It was then that I realized my wish for a white Christmas had come true.
    http://www.johnnyjet.com/whats-it-like-to-fly-on-christmas-eve/

    • Spencer Marker Spencer Marker | December 16, 2016 at 6:46 pm | Reply

      Hey John! At a previous airline, I used to work those red-eye flights frequently. On clear nights with a full moon, you can clearly see the mountains laid out underneath draped in a magical bluish glow. It truly is one of my favorite times to fly. Thanks for the comment!

  2. I’ve never flown during Christmas time, and so never seen the Christmas lights from above. Maybe that could actually be wonderful Christmas gift to wish for next winter?

    Also, your passion for what you do shines through in the text and makes it a lovely read, thank you!

    • Spencer Marker Spencer Marker | December 16, 2016 at 6:47 pm | Reply

      Hello there Katrine! Thanks for your kind words. And yes, that sounds like an excellent gift to wish for next year!

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