What building was that I flew over?
September 10, 2015 7:14 PM   Subscribe

How could you find a building when all you know about it is what it looks like from above and roughly where it is (with a large margin of error, giving a triangle with an area of about 1,900 square miles)? Is there any tool/database/search that might help with this, or would finding it be a matter of putting the question to people who live in the area (or, for the less social, strictly a brute-force problem)?

On a recent flight into Charlotte, North Carolina, about 5 minutes south (maybe SSW) of the airport, I passed an oddly-shaped building and I've been curious since what it was. Unfortunately, I didn't ask the flight attendant if she could tell me what city we were over right then.

Based on the flight time and distance, I thought the plane would be traveling about 300 miles an hour, but Google tells me that the average flight speed for commercial aircraft in the U.S. is 575 miles per hour. So I'd think the building is 25-50 miles S to SSW of Charlotte NC, which--since I don't know the exact angle of approach or the exact distance--results in a triangle with an area of about 1,900 square miles which the building might be in.

I've tried scrolling through aerial photos on Google Maps; it's exactly as fun as you imagine it would be.

I've also tried all the text-based searches I can think of (for the building, for logos which look like the building, and for possible ways to search for buildings based on an overhead view), but I haven't found anything useful (mostly I've interesting, funny, or outrageously-shaped buildings which are nothing at all like the one I'm looking for, and hundreds of irrelevant logos).

I sketched what the building is shaped like and posted a photo here, if anyone's interested.

I tried dumping the image into Google Images, wondering if it might be a logo it would recognize. The results were useless. I think it's keying on the stark contrast and ignoring the shape.
posted by johnofjack to Travel & Transportation around Charlotte, NC (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Was it this structure?
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:27 PM on September 10, 2015


Can you give the flight number and date? If it's recent enough, we should be able to narrow the search space fairly significantly.
posted by zachlipton at 7:27 PM on September 10, 2015


JoeZydeco: No, definitely not.

zachlipton: It was US Air 4506 on August 27.
posted by johnofjack at 7:33 PM on September 10, 2015


Ok the good data is at Flightradar24, but you have to pay to go back more than a week. Start with this map and I'll see if I can get you some more useful data.
posted by zachlipton at 7:40 PM on September 10, 2015


(Actually, there's a "+Google Earth" button to the right side of the map. Click it and you can open the flight track in Google Earth and start looking around.)

Around 5 minutes before landing, you would have been at about here.
posted by zachlipton at 7:44 PM on September 10, 2015


And not this either? You're certain it had three spokes?
posted by stormyteal at 7:45 PM on September 10, 2015


How big was the building? House sized? Office building sized? Mall sized? Was the building in an urban, suburban or rural setting? If the latter was it surrounded by forests or agricultural lands?
posted by plastic_animals at 7:46 PM on September 10, 2015


Flightaware has detailed info on flights going back much farther than FR24 for registered users. You need not pay to get the info. The flight path is not time stamped, but it will narrow the search area considerably.
posted by wierdo at 7:47 PM on September 10, 2015


And since we're bombarding you with questions, left or right side of the plane?
posted by zachlipton at 7:48 PM on September 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Actually, if you have an exact time, you can get the aircraft's altitude and geographic coordinates in tabular form and plug the lat/long into Google earth or maps or whatever.
posted by wierdo at 7:48 PM on September 10, 2015


A couple of schools nearby have three spokes on on side like this.
posted by plastic_animals at 7:50 PM on September 10, 2015


Sorry, I gave the wrong flight #. That was the 2nd leg; the first was US Airways 5063.

It definitely had three spokes; I made a little sketch shortly after with the note "S of CLT."

I don't know how big the building was really; there wasn't much around it I recognized that could give a good sense of scale. If I remember right, there was mostly woods around it.

I was on the left side of the plane.

Thanks for the suggestions so far; it didn't occur to me there were sites which kept track of flight data. (I'm not sure why not; I've seen a few absurdly specific sites.)

I've got to get to bed but I'll look into flight data tomorrow morning.
posted by johnofjack at 7:51 PM on September 10, 2015


Ok in that case you want this flight. Again, use the Google Earth button to see the full track over a satellite map. You were roughly here five minutes before landing.
posted by zachlipton at 7:56 PM on September 10, 2015


This is the other school I noticed. It is very close to the five minutes out point that zachlipton links to and is mostly surrounded by woods.
posted by plastic_animals at 8:05 PM on September 10, 2015


A few things of note:

Manchester Meadows Park (some kind of tennis center)
This velodrome (and the traffic circle nearby)
The water treatment plant or this similar facility
Catawba Nuclear Station (would have been some distance off to the left, but potentially visible)
JoeZydeco's structure, which you're sure it's not, but is positioned like exactly out the left side five minutes before landing, so I have to bring it up again.
Whatever weird baseball facility this is (part of Winthrop University apparently)
This spokey school or this almost identical one
posted by zachlipton at 8:32 PM on September 10, 2015


Possibilities? 1, 2, 3?

To try to narrow it down a bit, as opposed to time before landing (which, if it's a guess, can be quite subjective depending on the individual), do you remember if you saw this building before or after what should have been a relatively gentle, but noticeable, left turn onto final approach? Any recollection of how far away it was laterally? e.g. was it nearly below you, or some distance out towards the horizon?
posted by SquidLips at 8:44 PM on September 10, 2015


I found the shape you sketched but it's not a building. It's probably not what you saw, but I'm posting it anyway.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 10:54 PM on September 10, 2015


Unlike some of the answers, which are nothing like the shape you drew, this actually is the shape you sketched ;) But it's not a building.

Also, this is sort of like your sketch.
posted by the webmistress at 11:17 PM on September 10, 2015


I had problems sleeping last night so I got back up and spent some time trying to find this. I looked for it some more this morning, but concluded that it's probably not worth trying to brute force the problem: I forgot to mention a couple of important details, and I've also misremembered at least one of the details which I did mention.

The top of the building is white, and I've been saying "building" but it looked like a complex of three buildings making that shape. But, while the buildings were well-lighted, I was seeing it from above, at a distance, at night. Which means that that memory is inconsistent with arriving at CLT at 5 p.m. (Google tells me that dusk is 8 p.m. in Charlotte at this time of year).

I was looking left out the window and was definitely in the aisle seat at the time (I don't look out the window past/over another person for extended periods of time; it's weird and awkward) but I can't find all the boarding passes so I can't be sure if this was actually outside Columbus, Ohio (would be consistent with arriving when it's dark on August 27 but which would also mean that I wrote the wrong thing down when I made the sketch) or if I actually saw it when flying back (on August 31, not August 27), which would mean the building was east of the plane, not west.

I'm confident about the shape of the buildings; I remember trying to figure out how I'd describe it to another person before realizing that unless I was on a landline I could just sketch it and show them. (The description I'd come up with was something about a capital Y, sans serif, and a circle imposed over it, and cutting lengthwise down the lines of the Y, then moving the three pieces apart and taking out the parts of the Y inside the circle.... And then I realized I had a good example of "a picture's worth a thousand words.")

I'm not sure if I've sent everyone on a wild goose chase, but I wouldn't recommend spending more time scrolling over Google Earth.

I think what I'll do is find libraries in the cities within maybe 50 miles of the flight path, and email them to see if they know offhand of any buildings in the area matching the description--making it clear that my memory of it's already gone a bit foggy.

Thanks to everyone who tried to find this. My memory's worse than I would expect at my age.
posted by johnofjack at 4:27 AM on September 11, 2015


I would do a search for prisons in the area.
posted by rhizome at 12:44 PM on September 11, 2015


Found the boarding passes. I took another look at 8/31, coming back, which would put the buildings East of the plane, not West.

I found them about 2 minutes south of Charlotte, not 5. Looks like they're a Marriott in Ballantyne.

Thanks, everyone! I didn't know that there were sites recording historical flight data, and it wouldn't have occurred to me that the flight paths are saved as files you can load into Google Earth to find out exactly where you were at specific times on the flight.
posted by johnofjack at 10:03 AM on September 12, 2015


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