Physics for Poets
Story by Martha McPhee | Rhapsody August 2016
What my father taught me about the mechanics of takeoff—and the sublime
I've always loved to fly, especially taking off—the taxiing, the takeoff cue, the sound of the engines powering up, the speed of acceleration, the sheer magnitude of pushing so much metal into air (in airline-pilot argot, it's called “pushing tube"), the force of it all followed by the sudden calm and almost omniscient view of the world slowly scrolling beneath the plane.
As a child, on a flight from Newark to Atlanta with my father, I asked him to explain how it was possible to keep a plane aloft, to thrust it into the sky and have it stay there. Planes have always fascinated him. When he was 10, during World War II, he volunteered with the Air Warning Service to plane spot, searching the skies above his hometown of Princeton, New Jersey, for enemy aircraft. He knew them all: Focke-Wulf, Junkers, Heinkel, Messerschmitt. He can recite them still today.
One year, for his birthday, he asked his mother if she'd take him to LaGuardia Field so he could watch from the observation tower as the planes took off and landed. My grandmother navigated first train, then subway, then bus to stand in the blistering cold so that her boy could see the DC-3s coming and going, mesmerized by their wings flapping in the March gusts.
In college, my father took a class dubbed “Physics for Poets" and learned Bernoulli's principle, which states that an increase in a fluid's speed results in a decrease in pressure. On that flight to Atlanta, as our plane raced down the runway and lifted, miraculously, into the air, he in turn explained the process to me, making an airfoil with the back of his right hand and using his left to mimic the movement of air over and under the wing. “Air is a fluid, like water," he said. “And it behaves just like water, only it's so thin you can't see it." Outside the window, the places of our lives—the houses and cars and shopping centers—became smaller and smaller. The plane buoyed above it all like a toy boat.
I like to land as well—the engines slowing, the banking, the descending, the sound of the wheels, the familiar world returning to focus. On international flights from Italy, where I sometimes travel, touchdown in the States is still often punctuated, charmingly, by applause, as in recognition that the pilots have just put on a show—a performance piece—and they have.
I like it best when I am in the plane, but I also like to watch them land from the ground. My sister once had an apartment on Morningside Drive in Harlem, with a living room window looking east, over the city and out to LaGuardia. You could watch in the distance a stream of planes coming and going, and I would spend hours watching them with her father-in-law, a civil engineer, transfixed by the coordinated ziggurat of their paths.
On the way to visit my parents in Princeton, I pass Newark—the route intersects with the bottom of the runways, so if I hit it just right, I drive right beneath a plane landing or just lifting off. It's a complete sensation—the magnitude of the engines, the whirling air, the vibrations and sounds, the intoxicating smell of jet fuel, all of it combining to evoke the thrill and wonder of travel.
Once, on a layover on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten, I stayed at a hotel next to Maho Beach, a strip of sand at the top of the airport's runway. In the early afternoon, flights began to arrive, 747s from London and Paris, first a glint in the sky, growing until the belly of the plane was right above us, a colossal achievement that spectators with cameras tried to capture.
I can see it still: The head of the runway is separated from the beach by a chain-link fence with a sign warning of the danger of jet blast. And a blast is just what it feels like when the pilot throttles up, sending us scurrying for cover. A few daredevils grip the cyclone fence, held aloft like wind socks flapping in a gale. After a brief respite, a plane lands and another readies for takeoff. People again grip the fence, swimmers prepare to dive beneath the water, sunbathers wrap themselves in towels as a shield from the ensuing sandstorm. Then you feel the blast, the power of the mechanical sublime, and where it can take you.
We know people are taking a second look at their travel plans right now. If you're scheduled to travel March 10 – May 31, 2020 and would like to change your plans, there is no fee to do so, regardless of when you purchased your ticket or where you're traveling. This is in addition to our previous waiver, which waives all change fees – domestic and international – for tickets purchased March 3 – April 30, 2020. This is available for any of United's published nonrefundable fares. If you decide to cancel your flight, you can retain the value of your ticket to be applied to a new ticket without a fee. These electronic travel certificates are now valid for 24 months from the date they were issued. This includes all currently valid electronic certificates and all new ones issued on or after April 1, 2020. You might not see this policy change reflected everywhere right away – we appreciate your patience as we work to make that happen.
Eligible travelers on domestic flights and international tickets can request a refund on united.com or may call our contact centers if their flights have been severely adjusted or service to their destination suspended either due to government mandates or United schedule reductions related to COVID-19.
Certain tickets cannot be changed on united.com or the mobile app, including tickets booked through another airline (if the ticket receipt does not begin with 016). Please contact the original ticketing airline for changes.
Follow the steps below to stay up to date, change or cancel your flight.
Change your current flight:
- On the united.com homepage, select "My Trips" and enter your flight information to retrieve your flight.
- Select "Change flight" and then "Edit" to make the following changes:
- Date of travel or destination
- Add a flight
- Remove a flight
- Select "Continue" and choose a new flight option
- Continue through booking to confirm your new flight
Note: The change fee will display as waived, but any difference in fare may apply.
Cancel your flight and rebook later:
- On the united.com homepage, select "My Trips" and enter your reservation information to retrieve your flight
- Select "Cancel flight"
- Confirm flight cancellation
- If you have future flight credit, when you return to the reservation, select "Use Future Flight Credit" to shop for new flights and apply the credit towards a new flight.
Canceling or changing an award flight:
When you select "Cancel flight," you will have the option to cancel your award reservation and redeposit the miles or to cancel your award reservation and use those miles for another trip in the future.
*We're currently experiencing heavy traffic to united.com. If you experience an error while trying to change or cancel your flight, please try again later.
Click through the slideshow below for more detailed instructions:
Start on the United homepage:
User can select 'My Trips' on the homepage widget to find and retrieve their reservation.
When and where possible, we are working to repatriate travelers who are stranded abroad in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Our teams are working closely with government officials here in the U.S. as well as in other countries where flying has been restricted to gain the necessary approvals to operate service. In regions where government actions have barred international flying, we have coordinated with the the U.S. State Department and local government officials to re-instate some flights. Additionally, we have been operating several extra flights to countries in Central America and South America as we continue to play a role in connecting people and uniting the world.
We have operated more than 68 repatriation flights from Panama City, Guatemala City, Quito, Lima, San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa and Roatan, bringing nearly 9,200 people home. We will continue working with government officials to operate extra flights to Houston from Quito, San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa and from Lima to Washington Dulles and beginning April 5, we will begin operating multiple charter flights between Delhi and San Francisco. We continue to review more opportunities for flights between the United States and other countries to bring citizens home.
Video provided by the U.S. Embassy Ecuador of Americans returning home on United.
Additionally, our Customer Solutions and Recovery team is working with customers in the following markets to rebook them on flights back to the United States as capacity allows, either on our aircraft or on one of our airline partners' planes:
- Quito, Ecuador
- Managua, Nicaragua
- Roatan, Honduras
- San Pedro Sula, Honduras
- Seoul, South Korea
- Melbourne, Australia
We also recently reinstated several international flights back into our schedule to support customers and essential businesses which depend on these routes. As a result, we will be the only airline to offer service between Newark/New York and London, San Francisco and Sydney, as well as Houston and São Paulo, Brazil.
Calling all AvGeeks and travelers! Here's a fun way to take your next video call….from a United Polaris® seat, the cockpit or cruising altitude. We're introducing United-themed backgrounds for use on Zoom, a video conferencing tool that many people are using to stay connected.
So for your next meeting or catch up with friends and family, download the app to either your computer or mobile device to get started. If you've already downloaded Zoom you can skip ahead to updating your background image (see instructions below).
- Start here by downloading your favorite United image to your computer or mobile device. Just click "download" in the bottom left corner of the image.
- Next go to your Zoom app (you'll need to download the app to access backgrounds) and click on the arrow to the right of your video camera icon in the bottom of the screen.
- From here select, "choose virtual background" to upload your uniquely United photo.
Together, we are facing an unprecedented challenge. United Together, we rise to meet that challenge.