This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
The most remarkable aspect of Mark Vanhoenacker’s fascinating new book Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot is not his lovely gift with words–that is merely what makes it a delight to read–but his ability to strip complex technological and mechanical processes of the tedium and intimidation we project onto them and present those processes to us as the wondrous, graceful achievements and experiences they are. The book is dense and packed with information, but is never academic or intimidating. Vanhoenacker is a poet in a pilot’s seat.
“On every takeoff there is a speed known as V1. Before this speed we have enough room left ahead of us on the runway to stop the takeoff. After this speed we may not. Thus committed to flight, we continued for some time along the ground, gathering still more speed to the vessel. A few long seconds after V1 the jet reached its next milestone of velocity and the captain called: ‘Rotate.’ As the lights of the runway started to alternate red and white to indicate its approaching end, as the four rivers of power that summed to nearly a quarter of a million pounds of thrust unfurled over the runway behind us, I lifted the nose.
As if we had only pulled out of a driveway, I turned right, toward Tokyo.”
– page 10-11
Skyfaring is divided into long chapters themed around basic flight concepts like “Lift” or “Air,” and Vanhoenacker uses these chapter themes to reflect widely on all aspects of flight, both as a pilot and a passenger, and in both cases as an adult who retains the wonder and curiosity of childhood. His descriptions of flying and explanations of the sciences behind it are interspersed with personal digressions past and present. He tells us of the first time he saw a Boeing 747–the plane he now flies–at New York’s Kennedy Airport as a five year old, and the first time he flew alone to visit relatives in Europe. He tells us about the experience of seeing the world’s cities, the way Home takes on a different emotional connotation for a long-haul pilot, the way spending so much time in the air has impacted his experiences of being on the ground. His writing is warm and personal, like he’s telling a friend a story over beers, regal pilot’s uniform now hanging in a closet back at the hotel.
Vanhoenacker came to his current career later in life than most. After graduating college he spent several years as a management consultant before realizing on a fortuitous business trip overseas he wanted to be a commercial airline pilot. He had learned to fly as a teenager but had assumed it would remain a hobby. Four years after the flight that awoke his desire to fly for a living, he took off for the first time at the helm of one of the largest commercial aircraft in the world. It is perhaps this late arrival to his life’s vocation, the sense that he almost missed out on what he so clearly loves doing, that has allowed Vanhoenacker to retain his sense of joy surrounding his field of work. One gets the sense he is still daily a bit surprised he actually gets to fly planes for a living, gets paid to stare down at the earth’s surface under moonlight and watch meteor showers from above the clouds.
“Then there is the airplane’s solidity, the metal heft of it, so incompatible with the ungraspable medium it moves through. We speak of a jet’s weight in shorthand–340 today for takeoff to San Francisco, 385 to Singapore tonight–and I am occasionally shocked to recall that the unit we do not bother to append to these numbers is metric tons. The 747, whatever its abilities to make light of the planet, is too heavy to stand on the tarmac of many of the world’s airports.”
– page 109
Equal to his ability to convey the childlike wonder of flying as an experience, Vanhoenacker is brilliant in his talent for making the complex concepts of science and engineering that make his career possible as beautiful as they truly are. A list of the scientific or mathematical concepts he explains in the book would surely turn off most potential readers, and yet he explains these ideas so lyrically, so adeptly pulls his readers into this complicated world, we digest the information without being aware of how dry it might otherwise have been. Vanhoenacker has Annie Dillard’s gift for wrapping complicated concepts in delicate lyricism.
I can’t remember when I was last filled with the sense of wonder Skyfaring provided me. I have long loved planes, flying, flight science. My wife sometimes teases me for interrupting our conversations if I hear something flying overhead, and I perhaps derive more happiness from making intricate paper airplanes than most adults would readily admit to. This book not only reignited my fascination with aircraft and flight, but gave me a peek into the cockpit and into the life of commercial pilots. If you love flying, travel, science, or just damn fine writing, pick up Skyfaring right away.