Aerial view of Mendenhall Glacier winding its way down from the Juneau Icefield to Mendenhall Lake in Tongass National Forest near Juneau, AK | © Alaska Stock | Corbis
The "Harbor Visual" approach to Runway 29 at Portland, Maine, is a favorite of some FAA route designers, a spokesman for the agency said. The route uses lighthouses built to guide ships not planes. Planes flying north join the approach path by the Cape Elizabeth Light, pass by the Portland Head Lighthouse, turn left at the Ram Island Ledge Light and then make a sharper left turn at the Portland Breakwater Lighthouse.
Niagara Falls happens to be right under a route that is often used for flights from New York to Chicago. United Airlines captain Denny Flannigan recalls giving scenic tours on United's Channel 9, the pilot-communications audio channel passengers can plug into. Flying Boeing 727 jets in the 1980s, the captain used a Rand McNally atlas to point out rivers, lakes and other topography. In the '90s, he recalls circling Niagara Falls in a Boeing 757. Even when he didn't do a 360-degree over the falls on the U.S.-Canadian border, Capt. Flannigan would sometimes dip a wing to give passengers a better view. "What a great and beautiful country we have," Capt. Flannigan said.
One time he pointed out his own house in Ohio to passengers on a Chicago-New York flight and asked them to wave to his children. So many passengers began waving out the windows that a flight attendant knocked on the cockpit door worried something was wrong.
Las Vegas / Los Angeles
Arrival routes into Las Vegas still remain some of the most scenic, pilots say, even though they no longer dip down closer to the Grand Canyon. On flights to Vegas from the East and South, arrival paths usually pass near the South Rim of the Canyon, often flying over a navigation beacon called "Peach Springs" roughly 10 miles south of the Colorado River.
Passengers on the right sometimes can get a view of the canyon, though it's often not close enough to get a great view down into the canyon, and visibility can be hazy. Passengers on the left get a great view of Hoover Dam and the stunning bridge that opened in 2010 there.
The "Harbor Visual" arrival route to Los Angeles International Airport doesn't involve a harbor. Planes cross Santa Monica flying east and make a turn to the south at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, with the Hollywood sign and downtown L.A. out the left side of the plane. Jets then follow the Harbor Freeway south and then turn toward the airport so the Hollywood Park Race Track is just off the right side of the airplane.
Alaska Airlines pilots say flying into Juneau via the Gastineau Channel or out of Juneau over the Mendenhall Glacier are favorites, as are Seattle routes that pass by Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams and Mount Hood.
Mike Swanigan, an instructor pilot for Alaska Airlines, grew up in Anchorage and says flying into that city, crossing Prince William Sound with its surrounding glaciers and nearby mountains "is a religious experience for me."
"My heart stops when we roll in there on a clear day," he said.
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