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ARTS AND CULTURE

3 MIN

5 Minutes With … Pilot and Author Mark Vanhoenacker

Mark Vanhoenacker knows how to do two impressive things that most of us will never manage: pilot one of the largest aircraft ever built, and make commercial aviation sound romantic again.

With the book Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot (Chatto & Windus), the New England-born British Airways 747 pilot has created a meditative, insightful account of what it’s like to work one of the world’s most interesting (and disorienting) jobs. The book includes enough technical lore about flying an airliner to satisfy the casual aviation geek, but not so much that it distracts from the final destination: that place, now rarely visited, where excitement meets routine air travel. 

Vanhoenacker gets us there with language that’s strikingly vivid – even verging on the Homeric, as when he writes about traversing the “storm-mauled Bay of Biscay.” It’s nice to know there’s at least one airline pilot up there who takes the time to soak in the beauty of the Himalayas, meditate on the Northern Lights, and think about what it means that a person can now see both in the same day.

Here’s what Vanhoenacker had to say when he was back on the ground and on the phone with Billy.

Every (pilot) I know is aware they’ve got pretty much the best job in the world. We often joke that we’re closet romantics. There is a lot of discipline, obviously, in the job, and a lot of training, and a lot of quasi-military traditions. It’s not necessarily that we’re going to be talking about the sunset while we’re up there, but we’re clearly enjoying it. I’ve never met a pilot who says, “I should have done something else.”

We can live anywhere, really. I live in New York but I’m based for work in London.

There are a lot of books that came out in the 20s and 30s when flying was just becoming popular and appreciated. A lot of those books were meditative and were talking about flying as a poetic experience, as a dream that had come true. They’re quite lyrical and they’re really trying to capture what this totally new experience means. One of my favourites was Out of Africa, which isn’t about flying, really, but there’s a lovely half-chapter in there with quotes about discovering that new view of the world. In the time since then, it’s no longer new for us. There’s less demand for that kind of book. You quickly learn that flying is routine, but maybe we should forget that once in a while and think again what it’s like to be up there at all.

I think flying is new to every generation. Kids are obsessed with flying, and for very good reason.

I did most of the writing at home. I did a little bit in hotel rooms overseas. I did a lot of the note-taking after a flight, after landing somewhere. We often have a bus ride into town where we’re stuck in rush hour in Beijing or Singapore or something, so I would make notes on my phone. I’m a big fan of Evernote, which is that software for organizing things.

One of the things that kind of surprised me when I started to fly is how forested (North America) is. In New England in the 19th century there were essentially no trees; they were all chopped down for firewood or charcoal, and over the last 100 years or so it’s all regrown. When you fly over New England it just looks like a forest, and that’s even more true of the parts of Canada we fly over. I’m a big fan of countries where wilderness seems to be surrounding you. Australia, Scandinavia and Canada are places where you see the scale of the natural world in a really nice way.

When you do it all the time, even the most extraordinary things start to become ordinary. Even for pilots. I do a lot of flights to Vancouver, and in the winter coming back to London, sometimes we see the northern lights for hours and hours on end. Or you look down at the Rockies or the ocean or Greenland or the Alps or Mongolia. After a while it becomes almost like a cubicle. It’s a shame for pilots, first of all, to take it for granted. Or for air travellers who may be focusing on the parts of the experience they don’t like so much.

Published Wednesday, August 12th 2015

Header image credit: Storms over the Bay of Bengal. Courtesy Mark Vanhoenacker

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