This is how the great-circle route from London to Puerto Vallarta should have looked. Beginning,
As Earth rolls east, the white cap of daylight twists to the west, too fast for a passenger airplane to keep up with it. At the beginning, we seem to be flying toward night, but night flies away from us; in the middle we are traveling parallel to the terminator (the sunrise-sunset line) with the Sun low on our left; and at the end the local time is past noon and night is again behind, making to overtake us.
This is as it should have been, approximately. But it worked out differently. First, the actual route taken by the plane was a curve somewhat north of the true great-circle, so it started over northwest instead of southwest England.
I had a fine window seat after all, thanks to Tilly’s last-moment initiative, and an employee named Sam Peterson whose helpfulness was above that of the airline she worked for.
At first, clear weather; wrinkles of Pennine hillscape beautifully modelled by sunlit snow. I thought I could see the Eden valley, though the Lakeland mountains were underneath us. Cloud set in before the Clyde and the Hebridean islands; but I couldn’t take my eyes off the endless mysterious regularities that dissected the vast pavement of Atlantic cloud.
We had passed just south of the tip of Greenland (over which I thought I discerned a hump of cloud) when the captain asked whether there was a doctor on board. There was not. Formerly, airlines offered free passage for doctors; apparently that has been cut out – a false economy. There was a medical problem; the announcements began to be of the type of “We will give you more information when we have it ourselves.” We turned south. Clear weather again; the many fiords of the Labrador coast, hundreds of lakes picked out by the snow on them. We landed at Gander in Newfoundland, and a pale young woman was escorted off.
We had to spend the night at Gander. Rumors circulated: that she had had a miscarriage; that her contractions had started soon after she boarded the plane, or even before; that Gander had been chosen because the airline didn’t want to pay the parking fee at a larger airport. At any rate it must have been a large expense for them and a tragedy for her.
The flat dun landscape around seemed less appealing than the lake-dotted geography seen from aloft. We didn’t have to spend much time in the cold outdoors of Gander. We had to spend the most time in three-hundred-long queues for food and then for lodging, hoping that neither would run out. As we queued, we passed what a wag (I) suggestedwas a picture of the hotel.
The actual hotel was so spacious that the two of us had a suite of two bedrooms with two double beds and a pull-out couch. When I commiserated with the calm hotel manager about the unexpected crisis, he told me that this sort of thing happens about three times a year.
Gander, near the easternmost point of Canada, owes its existence to its airport, which was strategically important when it was the refueling stop between North America and Europe. It was the emergency stop for many times more passengers than us, and for many days, when American and Canadian airspace was closed after the 9/11/2001 attack. The people of Gander became famous for their hospitality.
A gander is a male goose, so the place is aptly named for the tough bird that migrates from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic, and that has been seen flying above climbers on Everest – though I don’t actually know how the name was given. Not far to the north, in Labrador, is Goose Bay, another large air base.
Goose is an interesting word etymologically; it illustrates several of the sound-changes that shaped our language. The Indo-European root was something like ghans-, from which descended hansa in Sanskrit, chên in Greek, anser in Latin, and gans in several Germanic languages including Old English. In English, the n dropped out, leaving a lengthened and nasalized vowel, so that we could write gãs for the singular, gãsis for the plural. Then the long nasalized vowel became, in the singular, un-nasalized and rounded: gôs; but in the plural it underwent umlaut, that is, was assimilated toward the high front vowel i of the plural ending, which later dropped, leaving gês. Then, in the Great Vowel Shift of the late Middle Ages, the long vowels we write as oo and ee shifted, as in so many other words, from the sounds associated with those letters in other European languages to the sounds those languages usually write with u and i. If our spelling had adapted to the Great Vowel Shift, we would write guus and giis.
I’m handicapped by not being able to write proper phonetic characters in this computer system. And my friend Geoffrey Jackson will correct me on the Germanic linguistics.
As for gander, it would seem obviously to be from the same root with some extension, like anser, yet scholars are not sure; it may be from a different root from which comes gannet. There is also a slangy verb gander, meaning to ramble around peering at things, like a silly goose. I remember someone on sentry duty in an army camp saying “I’ll take a look-out gander.”
I made my program, when drawing the great circle route, calculate its length, which it found to be about 9,160 kilometers or 5,690 miles – without complete accuracy, since I didn’t try to reckon with the “flattening,” the non-spherical shape of the Earth. The airplane’s time wpuld have been about 11 hours, on the more northerly gander that it took and against head winds. The route back, by contrast, lay well to the south of the true great circle – leaving the coast south of New York, and with tail winds; and almost all of it was through the shortened oncoming night.
Newfoundland has one of the irregular time zones: it is three and a half hours ahead of Greenwich. Puerto Vallarta is at longitude 105° west, which should put it exactly 7 hours ahead of Greenwich time, like Mountain time in the U.S. However, it is in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which chooses to be in the 6-hour-difference zone, while the state of Nayarit just to the north keeps to the 7-hour zone. At the 1991 eclipse, this was quite confusing, and traveling north from Puerto Vallarta to the village of Sayulita in Nayarit so as be in the path of totality, we decided to keep our watches to the 6-hour difference. And since then Sayulita has become such a tourist destination that it has broken off to join the 6-hour zone, because tourists using the Puerto Vallarta airport were missing their flights home. I say no more of Sayulita, nor of Rincón de Guayabitos, which has become an even larger “beach resort area.” Except that I now remember it was the small village where, toward the end of my 230-mile cycle ride to get to the eclipse, a pickup truck pulling in to the side of the road bumped into me, and holding it off with my elbow I yelled “Loco!” at the driver.
Airplanes now have an innovation: instead of window blinds, glass that you can turn to progressively deeper shades of blue to keep out sun glare. Not entirely pleasing: the staff can override you and turn it blue when you want to keep looking out; and the blinds made it a little more possible to block reflections from the plane’s interior if you’re trying to look at the stars.