An app that tells you what’s outside your plane window

A screenshot of the Flyover Country app.

Peering out the window on a cross-country flight, you can watch the short grass prairies of the Midwest transition into the ragged ranges of the Rocky Mountains. But identifying the specific geological features with more precision can be much trickier.

Can you spot the signs of different crustal fractures? Can you tell a meandering river from a braided river? Well, no surprise, there is now an app for that. 

Geologist Amy Myrbo, co-creator of the Flyover Country app, says she was inspired by the view from her plane window. 

“The window seat was the Google Earth of the past,” Myrbo says. “It's an amazing view and this is really what got us started thinking about how we could use that window seat as a great way to get people engaged with the geoscience.”

The app, which is available for both iOS and Android, uses a combination of WiFi and GPS. Before taking off, Myrbo suggests loading your city of departure and destination. The app then pulls information about geographic sites within several hundred miles of your travel path and saves it to your phone so you can use the app without purchasing in-flight WiFi. 

“It uses your GPS, which is completely legitimate in airplane mode,” Myrbo says. 

Manmade objects are easier to see than geologic formations, according to Myrbo. 

“Irrigation and crop land and dams … and you can see what what cities you're flying over," she says. "There are of course geologically a lot of fantastic things like volcanoes and glaciers and mountain ranges and huge rivers.”

The app also uses information from Wikipedia to give users some background information on the formations they can see. 

“There are a huge amount of articles about physio-geographic features and geologic features all over the world, really. Because the app works worldwide, it's not just not just US or North America and those articles are of course of varying quality, but they tend to be pretty good and they reference scientific literature and tell you a lot about the history and formation and connections between that geology and somewhere else.” 

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.

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