Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker – Book Review

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skyfaring-mark-vanhoenackerMany consider aeroplane travel to be the necessary evil that gets us from here to there.  This is even more true for Australians, who usually have so very far to fly before they arrive at another place.  But for Mark Vanhoenacker, the flight is the best part.  Flying is his joy and, as it happens, his job.

Luckily for us, he writes about flying with a skill that matches his obvious passion.

Skyfaring is one of those rare books that takes a topic in which a reader may have little or no interest and makes it utterly fascinating.  H is for Hawk is another and although Skyfaring lacks the former’s emotional heft, it is helped along by the fact that commercial air travel is both familiar and endlessly complicated.  I know what it is to fly in a 747 but I know absolutely nothing about how to pilot one. Vanhoenacker bridges that gap for us.

He tells something about how to fly a commercial jet but, and even more interestingly, he explains in beautiful, insightful prose how it feels to fly one.  How it feels to be the nerdy, planespotting boy who follows his heart and becomes a pilot.  How it feels to always spend your working day in the sunshine, above the clouds.  How it feels to turn a small dial and feel a machine bigger than a city building instantly respond.

Vanhoenacker gives us quirky facts:

…we have a cockpit form to complete in the event of an in-flight birth, which asks for the time of birth in GMT and only the approximate position of the the aircraft over the world.

He reminds us of how much we take for granted:

…as if it’s nothing to us, to fly across the planet and then to approach the white-granite surface of the cloud world with the now ordinary intention of simply descending through it, to find all of London lying like pages of densely typeset newsprint spread upon a floor.

He reminds us how flying inverts our sense of the world:

As we look down upon such clouds, upon what more typically looks down on us, we realise that today it’s the planet, not the sky, that is partly cloudy.

And he points out the everyday miracle that is flight

Most airliners, unlike every other kind of vehicle, cannot move backwards on their own.  This small but necessary reversal, the need to push a plane backwards 100 metres before releasing it to move forwards 6,000 miles, still strikes me as curious, as if the motions of airliners over the planet were as simple as that of toy planes that must first be pulled back along the floor.

I often fly with colleagues who know, and indeed care, whether we are travelling on a 737 or 747.  Me, I just want a plane (and preferably a big one) but there’s plenty in here for them: about beacons, flight simulators, navigation and even weathercocking.

The tail, which looks like a sail, acts like one too.  To counteract a crosswind blowing from left to right as we accelerate for take-off, we must steer not towards the left, as you might think, but towards the right; the wind catches on the vast tail and rotates the nose into the wind, a phenomenon known as ‘weathercocking’.

But for people like me, who always want the window seat, Vanhoenacker provides some wonderful new ways of seeing.

Aeroplanes raise us above the patterns of streets, forests, suburbs, schools and rivers.  The ordinary things we thought we knew become new or more beautiful, and the visible relationships between them on land, particularly at night, hint at the circuitry of more or less everything.

Skyfaring covers it all – the logistics, the mechanics, the beauty, the danger.  Even that vague sense of dislocation that arises from breakfasting at home before dining on a different continent.

I read this book largely because it came highly recommended by Mary Cunnane (oops, pardon me while I pick up that name I dropped!) but you should read it because it’s excellent.

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7 responses »

  1. I fly as infrequently as possible but like you am a window seat person. On my one trip to Europe we flew over western Russia on a cloudless night and I sat up watching the patterns of lights as nameless cities passed underneath us. Not sure I’ll read the book but all pilots seem passionate about flying, a good thing probably!

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  2. Ah, I wonder if this is one hubby would like. He’s far more clued into planes than I am – and because of him I usually do know (or want to know) what type of plane we are in. I love that notion that we are seeing the world and clouds from a different perspective and that its the planet not the sky that’s cloudy. I’m going to go check this out at booko.

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