This Instagram-famous pilot's photos of thunderstorms, blinding sunrises, and the Northern Lights show what it's like to work from the cockpit at 37,000 feet

Instagram/jpcvanheijstCargo pilot Christiaan van Heijst navigates his way through multiple thunderstorms.

34-year-old Christiaan van Heijst, Dutch senior first officer and cargo pilot, flies the Boeing 747-8 and -400 Freighter – and he’s racked up 8,000 hours of flying time.

Van Heijst is also a travel blogger and photographer. He takes photos of the incredible views he enjoys from the cockpit via his Instagram account, then writes about them on his blog.

From blinding sunrises to the Northern Lights – or navigating his way through a violent front of thunderstorms – scroll down to see some of the insane things he has experienced from 37,000 feet in the air.


Meet 34-year-old Christiaan van Heijst, senior first officer and cargo pilot. This is his office — he’s logged 8,000 hours flying the Boeing 747-8 and -400 Freighter.


From 37,000 feet, Van Heijst gets a unique perspective on the world — and he shares his insane photos on his blog and with his 58,000 Instagram fans.

According to the post above, this photo captures moonlight as it covers the mountains over Iran and Iraq, “giving it a ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ atmosphere.

“Millions of villages and cities pass by and even the burning fires from oil wells in Iraq are glowing in the distance,” he writes.


He enjoys some pretty spectacular views in this line of work.


From the fluffy clouds over Turkmenistan on a spring day…


…to a cloud-covered Britain on a night flight…

Night flight over a cloud-covered Great Britain last week. The bright light bulb ahead is the city of London, with the cites of Oxford and Aylesbury passing underneath, while Cambridge is in the far left corner. Although the light pollution from the cities below blinds out our view of the skies above slightly, we are still lucky to see 3 satellites passing overhead, and even a pair that seems to be flying in formation. Its the first time I ever see this and a little investigation showed me that there are a couple of 'binary' satellite couples flying in relatively close formation of each other. I could not find any information in the regular apps or websites that allow tracking of those objects, but my guess is that this is the double NOSS (Naval Ocean Surveillance System) satellites that happened to cross overhead in their 90-minute trip around the world. This twin set of satellites is being tracked often by amateurs and enthousiasts world wide. For those that are interested or can provide more information; shot was taken December 25th at 0410UTC. 14mm, f/2.8, 10 sec, ISO5000 #london #night #nightshot #nightsky #sky #satellite #space #flight #flying #avgeek #aviation #aviationlovers #instaaviation #instagramaviation #longexposure #nikon #d850

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In this photo, he said: “The bright light bulb ahead is the city of London, with the cities of Oxford and Aylesbury passing underneath, while Cambridge is in the far left corner.”


…the Aral Sea…

The Aral Sea, or what is left of it, as seen from above. Once, the Aral Sea was once one of the largest lakes in the world with an area of roughly 70.000 km2 and was home to a large population that was depending on its fish and freshwater. Located in Central Asia, on the border with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the lake was fed by rivers coming from the high mountains from the Himalaya mountains. Since the 1960’s, the Soviet government diverted the rivers that were feeding the lake, causing it to shrink at an alarming rate ever since. The disappearance of the lake did not only affect the local economy that was largely depending on the wildlife in and around the lake, but also the health of all of those that were living there because of an acute shortage of fresh water and heavily polluted remnants of what used to be a huge lake. Here and there in the dry desert, ships and abandoned villages and harbors can be found that serve no purpose anymore. The exposed dry lakebed is causing frequent dust storms, influencing the entire climate in the region. Fortunately, attempts are being made to restore large parts of the Aral Sea, but with no certain outcome. Nonetheless, its unique blue colours are beautifully contrasting with the salt plains and are a delight to see from high above. #aralsea #aral #kazakhstan #landscape #world #worldfromabove #aerial #lake #water #sky #environment #landscapephotography #instagood #instadaily #photodaily #photoaday #photography #photo #photoart #jpcvanheijst #nikon #d800

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The Aral Sea is situated in Central Asia, between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Van Heijst wrote: “The lake was fed by rivers coming from the high mountains from the Himalaya mountains. Since the 1960s, the Soviet government diverted the rivers that were feeding the lake, causing it to shrink at an alarming rate ever since.

“The exposed dry lake bed is causing frequent dust storms, influencing the entire climate in the region.”


…And a pretty insane sunset in Greenland. Van Heijst has said that sunrise can be painfully blinding, “with a fierce and penetrating intensity that is unparalleled from a spectator on the surface of the earth.”

Source: Instagram.


During a “long and turbulent night flight,” below you can see Van Heijst navigate his way “through a maze of heavy weather and thunderstorms.”


He’s also flown through “a huge front of active thunderstorms” between South America and Africa.

St Elmo’s fire. Somewhere over the Atlantic between South-America and Africa we encountered a huge front of active thunderstorms. Flying in thick clouds with zero visibility, we had to rely on our weather-radar to get a clear image of the weather ahead. It was obvious that there was no way to fly all around this squall line of entangled thunderstorms that stretched across our route for hundreds of miles to either side. Coming closer, the radar provided us with a more detailed image of the interior of the clouds ahead, enabling us to plan a route through this maze of violent weather. This time though, we immediately understood that we won’t get away with a smooth passage. The storms had almost grown together into one, forcing us to find the ‘least’ violent spot to fly through. Our long range HF-radio was already rendered completely useless with the nearby storms that charge the atmosphere and our airplane, thereby blocking all signals to and from the outside…. Full blog can be read here; https://jpcvanheijst.com/blogs/2017/06/574544-st-elmo-s-fire-4-minute-read #stelmosfire #elmosfire #aircraft #airplane #boeing #boeing747 #747 #cockpit #flightdeck #pilot #piloteye #pilotlife #thunderstorm #cloud #cloudporn #instaweather #instaflight #instagramaviation #instaaviation #aviation #flight #avgeek #instadaily #photodaily #photoaday #photography #nature #jpcvanheijst #nikon

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“Flying in thick clouds with zero visibility, we had to rely on our weather radar to get a clear image of the weather ahead,” he wrote. “It was obvious that there was no way to fly all around this squall line of entangled thunderstorms that stretched across our route for hundreds of miles to either side.

“Coming closer, the radar provided us with a more detailed image of the interior of the clouds ahead, enabling us to plan a route through this maze of violent weather. This time though, we immediately understood that we won’t get away with a smooth passage. The storms had almost grown together into one, forcing us to find the ‘least’ violent spot to fly through.”


The cockpit has more than a few knobs and buttons to get your head around. Here’s a fisheye view of the 747-8 cockpit,

“The full moon behind us gives a nice glow in the windows and sky outside,” van Heijst said.


Below, Van Heijst captures the moment an Airbus A340 passes overhead.

Man-made rainbows. Every now and then all the conditions are just right for the most amazing shots from the cockpit. This time, the sun was straight ahead in the right angle, another Airbus A340 passed straight over us and all the specific conditions in the atmosphere were just right for a thick contrail. All those things combined resulted in a contrail that showed all the colours of the rainbow for a few seconds. By now I can already predict what kind of personal messages I’m receiving after posting certain photos so to prevent a lot of angry messages; this photo is not ‘photoshopped’ or fake, its merely (severely) under exposed and cropped out. On top of that, I had to remove some very annoying sun glare from the thick windows. And yes, the colours were definitely visible with the naked eye. #boeing #340 #a340 #airbus #contrail #sky #flying #flight #aviation #avgeek #aviationgeek #instagramaviation #instaaviation #contrail #rainbow #instagood #instadaily #instapic #photography #photoaday #photoart #piloteye #pilotlife #colors #colours #jpcvanheijst #nikon #d800

A post shared by Christiaan van Heijst (@jpcvanheijst) on

“Every now and then all the conditions are just right for the most amazing shots from the cockpit,” he wrote.

“This time, the sun was straight ahead in the right angle, another Airbus A340 passed straight over us and all the specific conditions in the atmosphere were just right for a thick contrail. All those things combined resulted in a contrail that showed all the colours of the rainbow for a few seconds.”


Van Heijst said that while flying west-bound so high up north, “sunsets can last for many hours and sometimes an entire flight.”

He took the above photo while taking a “shallow left turn on cruising altitude during sunset over Russia.”


He has captured a stunning display of the Northern Lights over northern Canada, which was like “a curtain dancing in the wind”…


…Germany blanketed in thick “stratus” cloud…

Van Heijst said: “When flying so high up in the atmosphere, it sometimes feels as I can peak over alien landscapes that remain hidden from everybody on the ground.”


…A glimpse of a full moon over the Pacific Ocean….

Full moon over the Pacific Ocean. A constantly changing landscape of clouds and shadows complement the reliable and familiar stars above. When we dim the lights in the cockpit during such flights, I often move my seat forward and lean over the glareshield to enjoy those views from behind that curved cockpit window. With the nearest diversion airport at least a thousand km/miles away and far away from routes where passenger airliners would fly, its definitely a view that is reserved for just us. #moon #moonlight #pacificocean #ocean #view #landscape #night #nightflight #star #stars #clouds #cloud #cloudporn #weather #weatherphoto #pilotlife #aerial #aerialphotography #instaweather #avgeek #earth #nature #aviation #instagood #instadaily #dailypic

A post shared by Christiaan van Heijst (@jpcvanheijst) on

“When we dim the lights in the cockpit during such flights, I often move my seat forward and lean over the glareshield to enjoy those views from behind that curved cockpit window,” he wrote.

“With the nearest diversion airport at least a thousand km/miles away and far away from routes where passenger airliners would fly, its definitely a view that is reserved for just us.”


…As well as a galaxy over Brazil.

Galaxy view over Brazil, South America (5 minute read) Stars. Billions. Hundreds of billions of stars. The longer I allow my eyes to adjust to the lack of light, the more of them I begin to see. A broad band of dim light, also called the Milky Way, starts to show in the sky above. With no moon or sun to ruin our night vision, we’re able to see the amazing and inspirational view of our own galaxy, our relatively local ‘city’ in the universe. Our planet Earth is part of our solar system with the Sun in its centre and the other planets (like Mars, Venus, Saturn and many others) circling around her. Lets consider this…. READ the full post here; https://jpcvanheijst.com/blogs/2017/06/573746-galaxy-view-over-brazil-south-america-5-minute-read #space #flight #galaxy #stars #Brazil #avgeek #aviation #pilotview #pilot #piloteye #flying #boeing747 #pilotlife #alien #universe #instadaily #instapic #instaspace #instaflight #milkyway #milkywaygalaxy #photography #photodaily #photoaday #photographer #jpcvanheijst #nikon #d800

A post shared by Christiaan van Heijst (@jpcvanheijst) on

“Stars. Billions. Hundreds of billions of stars,” he wrote.

“The longer I allow my eyes to adjust to the lack of light, the more of them I begin to see. A broad band of dim light, also called the Milky Way, starts to show in the sky above. With no moon or sun to ruin our night vision, we’re able to see the amazing and inspirational view of our own galaxy, our relatively local ‘city’ in the universe.”


While cruising at 37,000 feet over Texas, Van Heijst captured the city of Houston.

“Blue, green and orange colours are beginning to glow on the eastern horizon to mark the beginning of a new day,” he wrote.


If all of that isn’t enough, he’s even caught the so-called “Zodiacal light” on camera.

Its not often that the so called Zodiacal light is that clearly visible! Zodiacal light is a faint glow that is sometimes seen at twilight when the sunlight is scattered in the interplanetary dust between the sun and the earth. On top of that, the International Space Station (ISS) made her third visible pass during our night flight, seen here as a bright trail of light as it reflects the sunlight from over the horizon. The green glow on the right is known as earth glow, not to be confused with aurora (or Northern Lights). Its actually a faint glow that is being produced by the oxygen in our own atmosphere and not a side effect of the sunlight or radiation. Sometimes visible with the naked eye, but you’ll to find a place with a little light pollution as possible. The joys of night flights. #zodiacal #night #nightflight #sunrise #space #iss #internationalspacestation #stars #earth #nature #earthglow #avgeek #aviation #pilotview #pilotlife #longexposure #photo #photography #instagood #instaphoto #instaspace #phootaday #photodaily #dailypic #nikon #longexposure_shots

A post shared by Christiaan van Heijst (@jpcvanheijst) on

“Zodiacal light is a faint glow that is sometimes seen at twilight when the sunlight is scattered in the interplanetary dust between the sun and the earth,” he explained.

“The green glow on the right is known as earth glow, not to be confused with aurora (or Northern Lights). It’s actually a faint glow that is being produced by the oxygen in our own atmosphere and not a side effect of the sunlight or radiation. Sometimes visible with the naked eye, but you’ll to find a place with a little light pollution as possible.”

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