I recently moved back to the Midwest after living for five and a half years in the Washington, D.C., area. I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting and reminiscing and my mind sometimes returns to Gravelly Point, one of the capital’s lesser-known attractions. From Gravelly Point I could see many of the things I loved about the city: the Washington Monument, the distant, gleaming white Capitol dome with the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building nearby, and the stately Potomac River speckled with sailboats. Gravelly Point was a place to which I enjoyed taking visitors and a place where I sometimes went just to be outside and have some time for reflection. It also happens to be one of the best plane-spotting locations in the United States.
I’ve always been a transportation enthusiast with an interest in ships and boats, trains, and planes. The first time I flew was on a hot summer day when my parents and I went to the “Fly-In/Drive-In Pancake Breakfast” at the Macomb Municipal Airport near where I grew up in Illinois. Demonstration flights were on offer and, though it’s hard to believe, my mom agreed to go up in a small plane. A few years later, we flew to New York and I still have photos I took through the window on my first jet flight as we climbed steeply over the railroad yards near O’Hare Airport in Chicago. Thanks to my grandparents, I was able to take a short flying class in Lawrenceville, Illinois, when I was 14, the culmination of which was fifteen minutes at the controls of a Cessna. In the summer of 2012, I had the privilege of going up with a friend of a friend, a former Air Force pilot and instructor, for a short flight over Annapolis and Baltimore, Maryland. I’ve never had a desire to get a pilot’s license, preferring rather to leave that to the professionals, but I’ve had a long fascination with flight and enjoy flying and learning about it. David Lodge summed up the feeling in his novel Small World:
To some people, there is no noise on earth as exciting as the sound of three or four big fan-jet engines rising in pitch, as the plane they are sitting in swivels at the end of the runway and, straining against its brakes, prepares for takeoff. The very danger in the situation is inseparable from the exhilaration it yields. You are strapped into your seat now, there is no way back, you have delivered yourself into the power of modern technology. You might as well lie back and enjoy it.
Gravelly Point is a place where you can experience that thrill Lodge describes from outside the airplane from a vantage that’s just about as close as the general public can get. Most tourists and travelers only see Gravelly Point as they land and depart from Washington National Airport (DCA) but it’s easy to get to on foot or by car and a few times I even jogged there from the Arlington Cemetery Metro stop. Gravelly Point is maintained by the National Park Service and sits at the north end of the airport’s runway 1/19, under the direct flight path of approaching and departing aircraft. The plane-spotting is prime when the wind is from the south. With that wind direction planes approach over the Potomac River to the north, bank right to line up with the runway over Gravelly Point, and fly low over the park before leveling off and touching down. A few seconds after the planes pass overhead, you can often hear the wind vortices swirling above.
Like those vortices, many fond memories of Gravelly Point have been swirling in my head. Shortly after meeting my partner, Emily, I took her there despite the cold, uncomfortable wind that day. I’ve taken family members there who were in town visiting and it makes me happy to remember the wonder and amazement the place stirred in them. And twice in the summer of 2014, when Emily had to take long trips for work, I spent time in contemplation at the park after dropping her off at the airport. Gravelly Point was a refuge for me in the city and gave me access to many things I love: water, boats and planes, green grass, and the limitless sky above.