Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot

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9780385351812: Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot

A poetic and nuanced exploration of the human experience of flight that reminds us of the full imaginative weight of our most ordinary journeys—and reawakens our capacity to be amazed. 

The twenty-first century has relegated airplane flight—a once remarkable feat of human ingenuity—to the realm of the mundane. Mark Vanhoenacker, a 747 pilot who left academia and a career in the business world to pursue his childhood dream of flight, asks us to reimagine what we—both as pilots and as passengers—are actually doing when we enter the world between departure and discovery. In a seamless fusion of history, politics, geography, meteorology, ecology, family, and physics, Vanhoenacker vaults across geographical and cultural boundaries; above mountains, oceans, and deserts; through snow, wind, and rain, renewing a simultaneously humbling and almost superhuman activity that affords us unparalleled perspectives on the planet we inhabit and the communities we form.

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About the Author:

MARK VANHOENACKER is a pilot and writer. A regular contributor to The New York Times and a columnist for Slate, he has also written for Wired, the Financial Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Independent. Born in Massachusetts, he trained as a historian and worked as a management consultant before starting his flight training in Britain in 2001. His airline career began in 2003. He now flies the Boeing 747 from London to major cities around the world.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Lift

I’ve been asleep in a small, windowless room, a room so dark it’s as if I’m below the waterline of a ship. My head is near the wall. Through the wall comes the sound of steady rushing, the sense of numberless particles slipping past, as water rounds a stone in a stream, but faster and more smoothly, as if the vessel parts its medium without touch.
 
I’m alone. I’m in a blue sleeping bag, in blue pajamas that I unwrapped on Christmas morning several years ago and many thousands of miles from here. There is a gentle swell to the room, a rhythm of rolling. The wall of the room is curved; it rises and bends up over the narrow bed. It is the hull of a 747.
 
When someone I’ve just met at a dinner or a party learns that I’m a pilot, he or she often asks me about my work. These questions typically relate to a technical aspect of airplanes, or to a view or a noise encountered on a recent flight. Sometimes I’m asked where I fly, and which of these cities I love best.
 
Three questions come up most often, in language that hardly varies. Is flying something I have always wanted to do? Have I ever seen anything “up there” that I cannot explain? And do I remember my first flight? I like these questions. They seem to have arrived, entirely intact, from a time before flying became ordinary and routine. They suggest that even now, when many of us so regularly leave one place on the earth and cross the high blue to another, we are not nearly as accustomed to flying as we think. These questions remind me that while airplanes have overturned many of our older sensibilities, a deeper part of our imagination lingers and still sparks in the former realm, among ancient, even atavistic, ideas of distance and place, migrations and the sky.
 
Flight, like any great love, is both a liberation and a return. Isak Dinesen wrote in Out of Africa: “In the air you are taken into the full freedom of the three dimensions; after long ages of exile and dreams I’ve been asleep in a small, windowless room, a room so dark it’s as if I’m below the waterline of a ship. My head is near the wall. Through the wall comes the sound of steady rushing, the sense of numberless particles slipping past, as water rounds a stone in a stream, but faster and more smoothly, as if the vessel parts its medium without touch.
 
I’m alone. I’m in a blue sleeping bag, in blue pajamas that I unwrapped on Christmas morning several years ago and many thousands of miles from here. There is a gentle swell to the room, a rhythm of rolling. The wall of the room is curved; it rises and bends up over the narrow bed. It is the hull of a 747.
 
When someone I’ve just met at a dinner or a party learns that I’m a pilot, he or she often asks me about my work. These questions typically relate to a technical aspect of airplanes, or to a view or a noise encountered on a recent flight. Sometimes I’m asked where I fly, and which of these cities I love best.
 
Three questions come up most often, in language that hardly varies. Is flying something I have always wanted to do? Have I ever seen anything “up there” that I cannot explain? And do I remember my first flight? I like these questions. They seem to have arrived, entirely intact, from a time before flying became ordinary and routine. They suggest that even now, when many of us so regularly leave one place on the earth and cross the high blue to another, we are not nearly as accustomed to flying as we think. These questions remind me that while airplanes have overturned many of our older sensibilities, a deeper part of our imagination lingers and still sparks in the former realm, among ancient, even atavistic, ideas of distance and place, migrations and the sky.
 
Flight, like any great love, is both a liberation and a return. Isak Dinesen wrote in Out of Africa: “In the air you are taken into the full freedom of the three dimensions; after long ages of exile and dreams the homesick heart throws itself into the arms of space.” When aviation began, it was worth watching for its own sake; it was entertainment, as it still is for many children on their early encounters with it.
 
Many of my friends who are pilots describe airplanes as the first thing they loved about the world. When I was a child I used to assemble model airplanes and hang them in my bedroom, under a ceiling scattered with glow-in-the-dark stars, until the day skies were hardly less busy than Heathrow’s, and at night the outlines of the dark jets crossed against the indoor constellations. I looked forward to each of my family’s occasional airplane trips with an enthusiasm that rarely had much to do with wherever we were going. I spent most of my time at Disney World awaiting the moment we would board again the magical vessel that had brought us there.
 
At school nearly all my science projects were variations on an aerial theme. I made a hot-air balloon from paper, and sanded wings of balsa wood that jumped excitedly in the slipstream from a hairdryer, as simply as if it were not air but electricity that had been made to flow across them. The first phone call I ever received from someone other than a friend or relative came when I was thirteen. My mom passed me the telephone with a smile, telling me that a vice president from Boeing had asked to speak with me. He had received my letter requesting a videotape of a 747 in flight, to show as part of a science project about that airplane. He was happy to help; he wished only to know whether I wanted my 747 to fly in VHS or Betamax format.
 
I am the only pilot in my family. But all the same, I feel that imaginatively, at least, airplanes and flying were never far from home. My father was completely enthralled by airplanes—the result of his front-row seat on the portion of the Second World War that took place in the skies above his childhood home in West Flanders. He learned the shapes of the aircraft and the sounds of their engines. “The thousands of planes in the sky were too much competition for my schoolbooks,” he later wrote. In the 1950s, he left Belgium to work as a missionary in the Belgian Congo, where he first flew in a small airplane. Then he sailed to Brazil, where in the 1960s he was one of surely not very many priests with a subscription to Aviation Week magazine. Finally he flew to America, where he met my mother, went to business school, and worked as a manager in mental health services. Airplanes fill his old notes and slides.
 
My mother, born under the quieter skies of rural Pennsylvania, worked as a speech therapist and had no particular interest in aviation. Yet I feel she was the one who best understood my attachment to the less tangible joys of flight: the old romance of all journeys, which she gave to my brother and me in the form of stories like Stuart Little and The Hobbit, but also a sense of what we see from above or far away—the gift, the destination, that flying makes not of a distant place but of our home. Her favorite hymn was “For the Beauty of the Earth,” a title, at least, that we agreed might be worth printing on the inside of airplane window blinds.
 
My brother is not a pilot. His love is not for airplanes but for bicycles. His basement is full of bikes that are works in progress, that he’s designing and assembling from far-gathered parts, for me or for a grateful friend. When it comes to his bike frames, he is as obsessed with lightness as any aeronautical engineer. He likes to make and fix bikes even more than he likes to ride them, I think.
 
If I see my brother working on one of his two-wheeled creations, or notice that he’s reading about bikes on his computer while I am next to him on the couch reading about airplanes, I may remember that the Wright brothers were bicycle mechanics, and that their skyfaring skills began with wheels, a heritage that suddenly becomes clear when you look again at their early airplanes. When I see pictures of such planes I think, if I had to assemble anything that looked like this, I would start by calling on the skills of my brother—even though there was the time I got him in trouble with our parents for skipping his chores, and so he taped firecrackers to one of my model airplanes and lit the fuses and waited just the right number of seconds before throwing the model from an upstairs window, in a long arc over the backyard.
 
As a teenager I took a few flying lessons. I thought that I might one day fly small airplanes as a hobby, on weekend mornings, an aside to some other career. But I don’t remember having a clear wish to become an airline pilot. No one at school suggested the career to me. No pilots lived in our neighborhood; I don’t know if there were any commercial pilots at all in our small town in western Massachusetts, which was some distance from any major airport. My dad was an example of someone who enjoyed airplanes whenever he encountered them, but who had decided not to make them his life’s work. I think the main reason I didn’t decide earlier to become a pilot, though, is because I believed that something I wanted so much could never be practical, almost by definition.
 
In high school I spent my earnings from a paper route and restaurant jobs on summer homestay programs abroad, in Japan and Mexico. After high school I stayed in New England for college but also studied in Belgium, briefly reversing the journey my father had made. After college I went to Britain to study African history, so that I could live in Britain and, I hoped, in Kenya. I left that degree program when I finally realized that I wanted to become a pilot. To repay my student loans and save the money I expected to need for flight training, I took a job in Boston, in the field—management consulting—that I thought would require me to fly most often.
 
In high school I certainly wanted to see Japan and Mexico, and to study Japanese and Spanish. But really, what attracted me most to such adventures was the scale of the airplane journeys they required. It was the possibility of flight that most drew me to far-off summer travels, to degree programs in two distant lands, to the start of the most literally high-flying career I could find in the business world, and at last—because none of even those endeavors got me airborne nearly often enough—to a career as a pilot.
 
When I was ready to start my flight training, I decided to return to Britain. I liked many aspects of the country’s historic relationship with aviation, its deep tradition of air links with the whole world, and the fact that even some of the shortest flights from Britain are to places so very different from it. And, not least, I liked the idea of living near the good friends I’d made as a postgraduate there.
 
I began to fly commercially when I was twenty-nine. I first flew the Airbus A320 series airliners, a family of narrow-bodied jets used on short- to medium-distance flights, on routes all around Europe. I’d be woken by an alarm in the 4 a.m. darkness of Helsinki or Warsaw or Bucharest or Istanbul, and there would be a brief bleary moment, in the hotel room whose shape and layout I’d already forgotten in the hours since I’d switched off the light, when I’d ask myself if I’d only been dreaming that I became a pilot. Then I would imagine the day of flying ahead, crossing back and forth in the skies of Europe, almost as excitedly as if it was my first day. I now fly a larger airplane, the Boeing 747. On longer flights we carry additional pilots so that each of us can take a legally prescribed break, a time to sleep and dream, perhaps, while Kazakhstan or Brazil or the Sahara rolls steadily under the line of the wing.
 
Frequent travelers, in the first hours or days of a trip, may be familiar with the experience of jet lag or a hotel wake-up call summoning them from the heart of night journeys they would otherwise have forgotten. Pilots are often woken at unusual points in their sleep cycles and perhaps, too, the anonymity and nearly perfect darkness of the pilot’s bunk form a particularly clean slate for the imagination. Whatever the reason, I now associate going to work with dreaming, or at least, with dreams recalled only because I am in the sky.
 

 
A chime sounds in the darkness of the 747’s bunk. My break is over. I feel for the switch that turns on a pale-yellow beam. I change into my uniform, which has been hanging on a plastic peg for something like 2,000 miles. I open the door that leads from the bunk to the cockpit. Even when I know it’s coming—and it’s frequently hard to know, depending as it does on the season, the route, the time, and the place—the brightness always catches me off guard. The cockpit beyond the bunk is blasted with a directionless daylight so pure and overwhelming, so alien to the darkness I left it in hours ago and to the gloom of the bunk, that it is like a new sense.
 
As my eyes adjust, I look forward through the cockpit windows. At this moment it’s the light itself, rather than what it falls upon, that is the essential feature of the earth. What the light falls upon is the Sea of Japan, and far across this water, on the snowcapped peaks of the island nation we are approaching. The blueness of the sea is as perfect as the sky it reflects. It is as if we are slowly descending over the surface of a blue star, as if all other blues are to be mined or diluted from this one.
 
As I move forward in the cockpit to my seat on the right side of it, I think briefly back to the trip I made to Japan as a teenager, about two decades ago, and to the city this plane left only yesterday, though yesterday isn’t quite the right word for what preceded a night that hardly deserves the name, so quickly was it undone by our high latitudes and eastward speed.
 
I remember that I had an ordinary morning in the city. I went to the airport in the afternoon. Now that day has turned away into the past, and the city, London, lies well beyond the curve of the planet.
 
As I fasten my seat belt I remember how we started the engines yesterday. How the sudden and auspicious hush fell in the cockpit as the airflow for the air-conditioning units was diverted; how air alone began to spin the enormous techno-petals of the fans, spin them and spin them, faster and faster, until fuel and fire were added, and each engine woke with a low rumble that grew to a smooth and unmistakable roar—the signature of one of our age’s most perfect means of purifying and directing physical power.
 
In legal terms a journey begins when “an aircraft moves under its own power for the purpose of flight.” I remember the aircraft that moved ahead of us for this purpose and lifted ahead of us into the London rain. As that preceding aircraft taxied into position its engines launched rippling gales that raced visibly over the wet runway, as if from some greatly speeded-up video recording of the windswept surface of a pond. When takeoff thrust was set the engines hea...

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