Mark Vanhoenacker is a pilot, and his office is the cockpit of a 747. In this entrancing book, published in 2015, he evokes cloudscapes and sunsets and night skies, the complexities of navigation, the sophistication of the machine he operates (a veritable collaborator that even speaks at critical moments), the knowledge of other cities that accumulates from repeated brief visits, the challenge of “place lag,” and his deepened sense of home as “the place that, wherever I am flying, I know I will return to and be still.” The structure—an unbroken collection of short sections (a paragraph or two, a few pages) grouped by chapter into broad subjects such as “Lift,” “Wayfinding,” “Water,” and “Night”—conveys his experience in an episodic but fluid way, as a succession of observations and meditations and reminiscences in which present and past interweave: I am here; I am thinking about such-and-such; once I did this; often this happens to me. He is always in the middle of things, even when describing departures or arrivals; alert equally to the outer world and the inner, he keeps encountering marvels.
Vanhoenacker’s career isn’t entirely enviable, even for those who—surely there are many of us—once dreamed of becoming a pilot. Scheduling takes him away from family and friends at unpredictable times, including holidays, and pilots (at least at his airline, which he doesn’t name), like members of the cabin crew, essentially work alone, a new team assembled from scratch for each flight. One day he finds himself exploring Tokyo with colleagues he flew in with, “walking and laughing with people I did not know yesterday.”
So captivating is Skyfaring’s gentle spell that one barely realizes that Vanhoenacker remains silent on a few points. The plane he now guides through the skies is famous, but why not also name the Airbus model he used to fly? Where exactly does he live? He speaks so often of flights from London, and of having trained at an English flight academy, that one might suppose he’s based there, but the note about the author at the end says that he lives in Massachusetts and New York. And, though he speaks often of his father, mother, and brother and refers now and then to friends, he mentions no wife or significant other, leaving one to imagine that his only true partner is his plane. Perhaps he writes in part to satisfy the desire to share that moves almost all of us.
On one subject his taciturnity must result from modesty: what it takes to be chosen to fly such a plane. Presumably almost anyone can enroll in elementary flight training, while advanced training entails considerable expense, time, and effort, which Vanhoenacker alludes to. But are there requirements for admission? He doesn’t say. And one assumes that, among the graduates, only the best will be hired to fly the big planes for the big airlines. This is something he doesn’t need to say, but still one wonders how it happened for him and how it could’ve gone differently.
As reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels can make one yearn to go to sea in the age of sail (impossible, but that doesn’t keep you from wanting it), so Vanhoenacker’s book may awaken, or reawaken, a wish to become a pilot, to be one of the few who takes the controls and commands the bird into the sky. However that plays out for each reader, though, Skyfaring is likely to accomplish something else, something remarkable. Though commercial air travel has become routine for millions, even those who are jaded or whose experience of feeling cramped and herded has drained flying of whatever pleasure it once possessed should long, after reading this book, to board a plane again and take a window seat.
Skyfaring makes clear that Vanhoenacker is not only a skilled pilot but also a lyrical and insightful writer and also, for that matter, a reader, who is as likely to quote Melville or Merwin as a technical term or the memoir of the man who was the 747’s chief engineer. One longs to take fresh paragraph-voyages with him. Luckily for us, he has a sideline in journalism—he published a piece in The New York Times only a week or two back, which I haven’t yet read—and his website includes links to other work.
Two notes: One, I read an uncorrected proof. Two, in a blog post that’s mainly about the new phenomenon of VR sickness, I quoted Vanhoenacker’s discussion of place and employed one of his insights, which I came across at just the right time.