I see sometimes photos of the Elizabeth Tower allegedly taken from an airplane window. Here are just two of them taken from Instagram account loves_bigben.

Big Ben from an airplane

Do passenger airplanes really fly such low heights above the center of London that it is possible to take such photos?

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    FYI these are simple "cartoon-like" fun images. They are just created (perhaps for ads?) and are totally unrealistic in every way. – Fattie Oct 15 at 15:49
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    Taking these with drones would also be problematical as these are exclusion zones for the sorts of fliers that could take photos of this quality; silicon.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Dronesflyzone.jpg – Valorum Oct 15 at 16:04
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    The airplane windows look like real photos, but nothing outside looks photo-realistic. Just look at how blurry the clock hands are. – Barmar Oct 15 at 18:03
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    I once flew into Heathrow in a path where we passed close to the London Eye (which I recognized) so I would have been able to take a picture, but not these pictures. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Oct 15 at 22:58
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    Drones have no windows and no passengers wearing watches :) – Neusser Oct 16 at 8:08
up vote 74 down vote accepted

No, airliners do not fly low enough that those can be photos.

On the left-hand one the distance between the top of the tower and the horizon is much less than the height of the tower, meaning that if this is a photograph, it would be taken from a height of about 500 feet.

The right-hand one apparently shows the top of the tower above the horizon, meaning that the vantage point would be even lower.

Flights landing at London City Airport's runway 09 pass quite close to the Palace of Westminster at low altitudes -- see for example AZ216 on Flightradar24 today -- but not that low. That would put them lower than several of the skyscrapers in the City which they need to pass over to get to the runway.

The charted approaches to LCY specify staying at an altitude of 2000 feet (which is more than 6 times the height of the clock tower) until just west of the Isle of Dogs. Some approaches to runways 27R/27L at Heathrow pass close to Westminster too, but at an altitude of 3000 feet.

More generally, the Palace of Westminster is in Restricted Area R157 where flights below 1400 feet without special advance permission are forbidden.


Both images look like digital artwork rather than photos to me.

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    This would be a great question for photo.stackexchange.com – Peter M Oct 15 at 10:57
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    Addition: Big Ben is under construction 'till 2021 with a scaffolding all around it. So even if it was possible, it wouldn't look like this at the moment anyway ;-) – NicolasB Oct 15 at 11:19
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    The right picture suggests something horrendous happened to Westminster Abbey, considering it seems to be levelled compared to the left picture. The left picture on the other hand would've had the plane crashing into London Eye (from which it was most likely taken.) So maybe the disaster is related to the change? – Chieron Oct 15 at 12:58
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    @Chieron: Hmm yes, that perspective matches quite well. – Henning Makholm Oct 15 at 13:09
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    @FreeMan: Well, evidently the pictures posted in the question must have been made by someone, somehow. – Henning Makholm Oct 15 at 13:48

Here is a real photo taken on 21st September from a plane coming in to land at Heathrow airport. Planes on final approach to Heathrow often fly down the south side of the Thames so if you have a window seat on the right of the plane you often get a very good view. However, not as close as in your images at the top! I doubt it is easy to get any closer.

Elizabeth Tower is just right of centre.

Image of central London including the Elizabeth Tower just right of centre

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    I believe you could have a slightly better view from flights landing into LCY. Though of course definitely not as close as in the pictures in the question. – jcaron Oct 15 at 20:21

As Henning's answer makes clear, the images in the question are composites and passenger planes don't fly that low over central London. Also, the clouds in the second image are obviously fake: they're clearly large clouds but being below the roof-line of the Palace of Westminster means they'd have to be between ground level and about 100ft (30m) altitude.

However, passenger planes do fly quite low over London. Typically, the wind in the UK is from the west, and planes land into the wind where possible. Since Heathrow is to the west of London, this means that, in typical weather conditions, commercial flights coming into Heathrow do pass over central London at low enough altitudes to give very good views of the major landmarks. It is possible to get nice photos of London from commercial flights; but not that nice. Also, the weather in London is often cloudy so you may well fly over central London and see nothing.

If I remember, I'll edit this to give an indication of the altitude they fly over London but, as luck would have it, planes are landing from the west at Heathrow today, so they're not coming in over London.

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    Even when planes are crossing central London on approach the LHR, they are sometimes above the cloud base, so good views are not guaranteed! (It is obvious from ground level that they are above the cloud base - you can hear them, but not see them). – alephzero Oct 15 at 14:35
  • @alephzero Good point -- added to the answer. – David Richerby Oct 15 at 14:51
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    Flightradar24 tracks from days in the last week show that those arrivals are typically descending from about 4500-5000 feet to about 3300 feet on the "scenic" stretch between the 0° meridian and Battersea Park. Views are best on the right side of the plane. – Henning Makholm Oct 15 at 15:20

I have in fact seen Big Ben while flying into London Heathrow once or twice, but always from far further away than these photos. Far enough that I had to search a bit to find landmarks.

The photos are certainly manipulated for artistic effect and the originals are likely either from the London Eye (a large enclosed Ferris wheel) or from a helicopter touring the city.

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    The first one does look like it's from about the right angle to be from the Eye -- well spotted! In that case, view would be to the south-west, so the sunset is in the wrong place. The second picture looks like it's taken looking south-east (the roof-line visible in that is the House of Commons) so wouldn't be from the Eye. – David Richerby Oct 15 at 15:27
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    (@DavidRicherby) if you're shopping a stock London photo in, why not add a sunset too· Or clouds. They don't look real: ground mist in London tends to be flat-topped without the thinner cloud just above -- I grew up on a hill looking out over London – Chris H Oct 15 at 15:57
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    @ChrisH Yeah, the clouds in the second photo are obviously the sort of large clouds that there simply isn't space for at ground level. – David Richerby Oct 15 at 16:04
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    @DavidRicherby: The direction of the sunset is not necessarily wrong; in late December the sunset in London is seen in direction 232°, which does match the line of sight from the top of the Eye to Big Ben pretty well. Still, I'm not sure taking photos directly into the sunset should leave the buildings in the foreground so nicely exposed ... – Henning Makholm Oct 15 at 18:16
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    @ChrisH I'm pretty sure the "hills" are clouds, but I agree that the sunset is almost certainly composited in. The second photo seems to be taken from the north-west (the Eye is to the north-east) -- compare the direction of the House of Commons roof-line. – David Richerby Oct 16 at 17:10

This is from an approach to LCY - afraid it's not Big Ben but Tower Bridge, as we were approaching from the east rather than the the west (depends on the wind direction), but this may give you an idea how low flights come in over central London.

For me, it's lower than I would have thought, but still not low enough to take the photos in question.

tower bridge lcy

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    Tower Bridge is still west of LCY, so this picture must have been taken on the way to landing from the west. The arrival procedure at LCY is somewhat unusual -- all flights no matter where they come from or what the wind is, first head for one of two waypoints over the Thames estuary. From there ATC will vector them towards the airport, making an U-turn over Southwark/Lambeth if the airport is working west-to-east. (The exact timing of that U-turn is used by ATC to fine-tune the landing sequence of successive flights.) – Henning Makholm Oct 17 at 15:54
  • Right you are - guess we must have flown right past the airport from east to west, then this photo is as we made the u turn to come in to land from west to east – rbennett485 Oct 17 at 16:01

There is something wrong with the lighting in the first picture (well, several somethings):

  • the hand is illuminated from the outside, and clearly in shadow on the part facing the inside of the plane - and the plane's interior is also not illuminated by the sun. This contrasts with the window border, which is clearly illuminated by something while it should also be in shadow/airplane interior light.
  • the picture is made into the setting sun (or rising, it doesn't much matter). This is perplexing on one hand because intensity of interior airplane interior lighting when I flew did not match the sun's (even at sunset), and on the other because the horizon would be much much brighter than the parts of buildings not illuminated by sun
  • a total absence of shadows in the city scape. The low sun on the horizon should project shadows, and some of them should be visible on flat-top buildings (or flatter-topped)
  • the two example photos by contributors have cloud shadows in the city scape. Residents of the UK will know better if cloud shadows are common or not.

EDIT: The first picture (at least) is not taken from an airplane window.

It would definitely have been possible to take a clear photo of Big Ben (and a number of other well-known landmarks too) when I returned on a flight from Riyadh a decade or so ago. I remember agreeing with fellow passengers that the overall vista was something like a tea towel (drying cloth) showing the London sights. Also, seeing planes stacked up above North East London, making descents to Heathrow in the South West, was commonplace when I lived in North London. Planes do fly over central London and you can see the landmarks below if the aircraft banks towards your side of the cabin.

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    Gebjon’s answer already shows it’s possible but it’s nothing like the photos in the question. – Notts90 Oct 16 at 8:01
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    Downvoting as the answer does not address the question at all, which asks if "planes fly at such low height such that photos in the question [The Elizabeth Tower at such size] is possible". – B.Liu Oct 16 at 9:38
  • As you say, Gebjon's photo shows something that is nothing like the PS images in the question. So that doesn't show that it is possible, does it? My answer is that planes do fly low enough for a very clear view of the Elizabeth Tower (which everyone knows is commonly called Big Ben, even though - pedants - that is actually the bell) "if the aircraft banks towards your side of the cabin". I, and some other people on the flight,remarked on how close we were. Planes fly low over cities, London included - what on earth do you think precedes a landing at London City Airport? – Geoff Kendall Oct 17 at 18:49
  • @GeoffKendall I see where the confusion comes from. Your answer is logically sound on its own and perhaps answers the title of the question. Though in my opinion it does not address the question in the body field, hence the downvote. Planes do fly low over cities, but not that low to allow the photoshopped images to be taken in real life as pointed out by other answers, or else the event preceding the (planned) landing ay LCY will be crashing into 1 Canada Square or adjacent buildings. – B.Liu Oct 24 at 17:03

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