In the tradition of the great literary pilots like Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Mark Vanhoenacker provides a meditation on modern-day flight with his new book Skyfaring, A Journey with a Pilot. A commercial airline pilot, he speaks from the cockpit to the questions of the everyday traveler. His thoughtful reflections on everything from jet lag to place names on flight charts renew the mystery and adventure of flight in an age in which air travel has become commonplace transportation.
Longitude. We’ll start by asking the question you always get: How did your interest in flight begin?
Vanhoenacker. It started so early, it’s hard to be specific! As a kid I had lots of toys and then model airplanes, too, and blue was always my favorite color. For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by airplanes and flight. So why was that? I’m not sure, exactly, but my dad had traveled a lot in his life—from his home country, Belgium, to Africa, then Brazil, then the U.S.—so stories of the kinds of journeys that flight makes possible were something I was surrounded with from a very young age. It’s my mother, though, who may have hit the nail on the head. She always liked to remind me of what happened after I (age four) saw the original (1978) Superman movie. For days on end afterwards I ran around with my arms outstretched. I guess that’s the earliest symptom I exhibited of what pilots call “the bug”.
Vanhoenacker. I studied to be a historian before I decided to become a pilot, and I suppose I’m particularly drawn to flights that remind me of history—of either my family, or of the larger world. To fly over my father’s homeland of Belgium, for example, is something I talk about at some length in the book—it’s a deeply resonant experience for me, all the more so in the years since he passed away. I’m also very conscious of the history that has shaped the cities we fly to. Many of the largest cities in the world were ports first of all—they were founded, or grew to global prominence, because of their position on the ocean. And now they call 747s to them from across the planet. So when I fly to places like Cape Town, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vancouver, I’m always aware that our 747 is echoing the vessels that centuries ago put these cities on the map. And of course, there’s so much nautical language and tradition that’s alive in the cockpit, as I talk about in the Water chapter—another pleasing echo in history and language.
Longitude. We’ve seen a lot of books on flight circulating lately, from your own to Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun, a retelling of the life of aviatrix Beryl Markham, to David McCullough’s new biography on the Wright Brothers. Can you explain the culture’s current fascination with flight?
Vanhoenacker. As someone whose fascination with flight never ebbed in the first place, I’m glad that aviation is having a cultural moment. There are probably a lot of factors, but one is surely the new aircraft that have been introduced in the last few years. Both the Airbus A380 (the enormous, four-engine, double-decker jet) and the Boeing 787 (the super-efficient twin-jet known as the Dreamliner) have enjoyed the kind of press that surprised even a fan of aviation like me. And—this is pure speculation—it might also be a kind of reaction to the rhetoric that surrounded the Internet boom. Perhaps we’re rediscovering the physical planet and the importance of travel after so many years of wonder at and exploration of the online world.
Longitude. What inspired you to write a book about flight?
Vanhoenacker. When I was a kid, you could go into the cockpit and talk to the pilots during flight. That’s not possible anymore. The book is my attempt to share on paper what I would share if you could come up to the cockpit, as I did so often in the old days. I’ve never met a pilot who says they regret their career choice—that’s quite something, and I wanted to describe why that might be.
Longitude. We like to ask authors if they prefer window seat or aisle. We can already guess your preference, as in your book you describe the “wonders of the window seat,” AND you have an incredible gallery of window seat photos on your website, but what would you say to aisle-huggers? (Readers who'd like to contribute to the gallery can send their photos to email@example.com).
Vanhoenacker. Well, on some airplanes, even aisle-huggers can get a pretty vivid experience of flight. The new 787 Dreamliner has absolutely enormous windows. The first time I flew on it, I was in a middle seat, and even there I felt at times as if I was “on deck” of a ship—that’s how much the larger windows change the experience. I hope to fly this plane someday as a pilot, but in the meantime I’ll make the most of it as a passenger. If you’re not on a 787, one of my favorite things to do in any seat is to go to the moving map channel and then read up on the places you’re flying near (online if you've got in-flight wi-fi, or offline using an app like Wiki Offline that stores all the text of Wikipedia on your phone).
Vanhoenacker. When I was a teenager I always listened to music in flight, especially during takeoff and landing. For a few years passengers weren’t allowed to listen to personal electronic devices at those times, which I found pretty detrimental to my enjoyment of the window seat. Now those rules have changed again, and we have access to so much more music on smartphones, etc., so one of my favorite combinations—music and flying—is back in action at all phases of flying as a passenger. I think the other big change has been in airports. I remember when I was a kid going to certain airports where you could get on a plane without ever actually seeing the plane. That’s how much you were literally walled off from the wonder of the airplanes themselves, and the sight of their air-sculpted forms, their beautiful shapes that to me suggests everything that airplanes make possible. Airport ceilings were low, windows few. Recently, airports have gotten a lot better about this. A modern terminal like London Heathrow’s Terminal 5, where I spend a lot of time, is basically a box of glass, with huge multi-story windows designed to reconnect travelers with the air show that’s going on all around them.
Vanhoenacker. I like flying best on partly cloudy days, I think. Of course, I never complain about clear skies—but some fluffy cumulus clouds (the kind from the opening credits of “The Simpsons”) make a bright day even better. Such clouds mark our climb or our descent, a kind of vertical texture that helps mark the scale of our journeys. And once we’re above these beautiful clouds, when they become low to us rather than high, they frame the world below. They’re particularly lovely on a moonlit night over the ocean, when they cast shadows onto the water. Water shadowing water, in the light of the moon, hours from land—it doesn’t get better than that.
Longitude. Any advice on coping with jet lag, or—as you call it—place lag?
Vanhoenacker. It’s funny—we pilots face jet lag less than our passengers do, because often we’ll be heading back after a day, and have no need (or desire) to acclimatize to local time. But on longer trips, I’ll definitely try to switch. Exercise helps for sure, as does natural light and fresh air. A lot of experts say to avoid sleep but I find a 20 minute nap (with an alarm or two set) can make the difference between enjoying a morning in a new city and feeling like I’m dragging myself around. If all that fails there’s always coffee! As for place lag—that sense of shock at moving so quickly from one corner of the globe to another, and arriving so immediately and wholly in a new climate, language, cityscape, etc.—there’s no good way to overcome it. And maybe that’s a good thing—it reminds us of how unusual and wonderful these journeys still are to us as a species.
Vanhoenacker. I’m a big fan of Patrick Smith, who wrote Cockpit Confidential. In the world of old-school flying literature, in addition to Markham and Saint-Exupéry, I love Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. Flying appears in it, for an utterly amazing half-chapter, and I quote from it a couple of times in Skyfaring (I had to restrain myself, otherwise I’d have quoted it much more). But I’d pick her book for a desert island even if it did not discuss flying. It’s a fine book about travel and where our wonder about the world can take us.