Reading: Waypoints in the Sky

It’s delightful to read well-written prose. In the following, the author Mark Vanhoenacker, a professional pilot, writes like a poet. I love everything related to aviation. Hence I recommend this to you.

A Pilot Explains Waypoints, the Hidden Geography of the Sky

An airplane navigates through the sky along a route composed of beacons and waypoints. Waypoints are defined by geographic coordinates or their bearing and distance from a beacon, and by a name, which typically takes the form of a five-letter capitalized word—EVUKI, JETSA, SABER. The idea is that they will be pronounceable and distinct to controllers and pilots regardless of their first language. The pilot’s map of the world, and the flight computers’ too, is atomized into these waypoints. They are the smallest nuggets of aerial geography, and in some sense the only such unit that matters once you leave the runway. They are the sky’s audible currency of place. …

Near the border of India and Pakistan is the waypoint TIGER. Another TIGER forms part of an arrival pattern for London, as if lifted from Britain’s former empire as incongruously as an animal taken from a warm place to a zoo in a cold city. On flights from Singapore to London I may overfly both TIGERs in the same night.

America’s sky-mappers have gone to more trouble than most to ensure that local colors fly in the country’s skies. The Sonoma County airport in California is named after Charles M. Schulz; nearby is the waypoint SNUPY. Near Kansas City are the culinary waypoints BARBQ, SPICY, SMOKE, RIBBS, and BRSKT. Near Detroit is PISTN, surely for the basketball team whose name reflects the city’s heritage of industry; the skies around Detroit also feature MOTWN and WONDR (Stevie, Michigan-born) and EMINN, perhaps for the rap star. Houston’s nearby SSLAM is followed a few miles beyond by DUUNK (not to be confused with DUNKK, near Boston, a reference perhaps to a certain Massachusetts-born doughnut chain). The skies around Houston also feature ROKIT for the city’s space legacy, and TQELA, WORUM, CRVZA (beer), CARNE (meat), and QUESO (cheese) for the city’s cross-border culinary traditions that arriving passengers may soon be enjoying.

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