Editor’s note: From the first instant we have our hands on the controls, moving an airborne craft through an initially startling number of dimensions, we are pilots. The pilot we were at that moment is alive in all of us still, but as we fly we learn to experience flight in new ways, and that sense of who we are as conductors of the aircraft strengthens, as we grasp connections and fundamentals that escaped us entirely in those early hours.
In his instant aviation classic Skyfaring, A Journey with a Pilot, commercial aviator Mark Vanhoenacker, like Mark Twain, a commercial pilot of another kind some 150 years prior, wades deep into the big questions of the journey. There he finds deeper meaning behind the seemingly commonplace tasks we perform, like getting an airplane ready for flight. He also takes a higher-level look at what we do in this modern age of flight, crystalizing the significance of intercontinental jets on our human perception and marveling again and again at our basic inability to grasp the enormity of the transformation airplanes have let seep into our lives, as when he stands at home in New York quietly washing the red dust from his shoes, dust from a hike continents away, in South Africa, just four days earlier. In this excerpt from “Skyfaring”, Vanhoenacker recounts the point in his training when the plane began to make sense in deeper and more elaborate ways. The realizations that follow will change everything. —Isabel Goyer
At that point I was still not certain I wanted to become an airline pilot. But on the ﬂight back to London I asked to visit the cockpit and, during my half-hour visit, we overﬂew Istanbul. The Golden Horn and the Bosporus and the domes and minarets of the city were lit sideways, perfectly, by late-afternoon sunlight. Asia was disappearing under the nose; there ahead lay Europe; here, between them, it must be Istanbul. “The city of the world’s desire,” said the captain, pointing. “Constantinople,” he added, when he saw my blank face. I was struck by the age of the Bahraini co-pilot, who must have been only in his late twenties. He was hardly older than me. We talked about his career, my interest in ﬂying. “Oh, you should do it,” he said with a smile from behind his aviator glasses, in barely accented English.
I returned to my seat, put my headphones on, and watched Europe unroll from one end to the other. The music’s effect on my reﬂections and the passing world was even more montage-like than usual. I no longer keep a regular diary but when I was younger I loved to write in the window seat with my headphones on. I still occasionally see passengers who have made this same arrangement of window, music, and paper—travelers who have taken an old-school approach to their geography, their writing of the world. That pilot was right, I thought. This is what I love best. The moment I made my decision to become an airline pilot came a few hours later, when I was on a bus, rolling clockwise down the M25 motorway from Heathrow.
My journey to the cockpit had one more stop: a job in the business world to repay student loans and start to save the money I expected I would need for my ﬂight training. I had often heard complaints about the amount of travel that management consulting required. Naturally I applied to every consulting ﬁrm I could ﬁnd. I had no response from the ﬁve large consultancies I ﬁrst applied to. Later I found a glaring spelling mistake in the ﬁrst line of my cover letter. I corrected it and applied more widely. Eventually I took a job at a much smaller ﬁrm in Boston; I was drawn to its friendly atmosphere, the possibility of travel all over the world, and an ofﬁce in a charming red brick dockside building that enjoyed stunning views of the city’s old harbor and the airport across it. Three years later, I left that job to start my ﬂight training in Britain, on a course sponsored by an airline, part of a group of aspiring pilots who are today still my best friends at work.
As an educational experience, private ﬂying is practical and hands-on. Commercial ﬂying, on a residential course like the one I followed, is entirely different. About half of the eighteen months or so of that course were spent entirely in the classroom. And so, having left the academic world behind some years earlier, I was surprised to ﬁnd myself again at a desk with a notebook, worrying about exams, and studying late into the night with friends in the common areas of a crowded hall of residence.
The historian I. B. Holley wrote that we have neglected the creativity that makes our technology possible. I certainly had. When I returned to the classroom I held the simplistic view that academia, and perhaps much of the thinking and working of the world, was neatly divided. There were so-called creative or “soft” ﬁelds—those whose practitioners try to work outside the box, or to think about the biases of a box, who talk about why boxes are important or beautiful, and the history of boxes, and why some boxes hate other boxes, and how boxes are depicted in the arts. Then there were the “hard” professions—those whose acolytes are devoted to the evolution of boxes, to their chemistry or mathematics, or to the design and construction of more reliable ones.
Never in my life has a view that I held been overturned as cleanly and quickly as this one. Within the ﬁrst hours of my new classes on aircraft technology, and again and again throughout my training, I was struck by the extraordinary creativity of engineering, by the art of ﬂying: how connections are made between substances or disciplines, how an effect in a system is conjured as carefully as that of a story, a poem, or a song. And engineers are conﬁned by a frame of physical laws and, especially in aviation, by a web of rigid constraints—weight, reliability, near-perfect safety—that might make a composer of haikus blanch.
I marveled, too, at the similarities between engineering and biology, how engineers are the agents of a kind of evolution, the conscious evolution that is the work of an industrializing species. This thought ﬁrst occurred to me early in my ﬂight training, when I was taught about a device called a fuel-cooled oil cooler. The oil in the engines gets very hot, while the fuel in the wings gets very cold, especially on long ﬂights at high altitude. So airliners may deploy heat exchangers, which allow the engine oil to transfer excess heat to the fuel, without mixing the two. While the instructor was describing this, I thought of the high-school biology class in which I learned that whales use a certain kind of heat exchanger to transfer warmth from arterial to venous blood. It’s just one of many examples of the convergence of evolution and engineering. Airliners have skins that like any skin serve to regulate what passes through; they have circulatory systems; they maintain a self-regulating, all but biological level of homeostasis. Like our awareness of the location of our limbs, they have proprioception of the positions in space of ﬂight controls. Airliners’ ability to self- monitor many systems, and their carefully graded hierarchy of notiﬁcations and alarms, have many features in common with pain. Airplanes store maps and adapt them in real time; they sense many qualities of the world around them such as temperatures and wind, and the presence of land below or precipitation ahead. When pilots arrive at the threshold of an airliner, the airplane is almost always already powered, lit, and air- conditioned, drawing electricity either from the airport—the jet plugged in as simply as the toaster in your kitchen—or from an auxiliary engine in the tail. Sometimes, though, an aircraft that spends the night at an airport is completely depowered. On certain early icy mornings—in my memory such mornings have always been in northern Europe, in winter, when we reach the plane well before the ﬁrst hint of sunrise—I have walked up to the jet and opened the door slowly, moving its surprising weight aside to the locked- open position. Inside there is total silence, the stygian feel of the inside of a snow-covered car, and the same sense that the vehicle is cold and unprepared for the scale of its intended motion.
I then make my way to the dark cockpit, to begin to work through the airplane’s ﬁrst checklist by ﬂashlight. This activates some of the aircraft’s most critical functions, those that are hard wired to the batteries. They are the ﬁrst systems the plane powers and the last things it would relinquish, as a body prioritizes blood to the brain. It is as though we are discovering an alien spaceship, perfectly functional, and slowly, line by line from a manual, re-conjuring its evident brilliance centuries after it was abandoned.
Next I start the auxiliary engine at the back of the plane. It takes only a minute or two, but it always feels much longer; I do not have many attempts before the battery would be drained entirely. Success, when it comes, is a series of auspicious ﬂickerings in the cockpit and down the passenger cabin, as systems activate, lights turn on, cooling fans begin to whirr, screens ﬂash and go blank, bleached colors appear on them and slowly turn true. Many components begin to test themselves; warnings arise, then quickly clear. Electrons begin to ﬂow through the nerve wires, hurrying light to the distant wingtips or returning with news of the quantity of fuel onboard or the present outside temperature, as the plane awakens to its purpose.
Mark Vanhoenacker, Author Of “Skyfaring,” Answers The Big Questions
Life as a long-haul pilot explored and explained
You came to flying later than some pilots, after starting careers in the academic world and management consulting. Why the change?
I’d always been in love with flying, but I didn’t have any relatives or neighbors who were pilots, and it wasn’t on my High-school guidance counselor’s radar, as it were. Becoming a pilot seemed as unlikely as becoming an astronaut. So I followed an academic career and then worked as a management consultant for several years, flying all over the world to do research and visit clients. By then I knew that my love of flying wasn’t going away, and I thought, hmmm, I’d better have a careful think about how I want to spend the rest of my working life.
The book draws upon a huge array of ideas, from history and geography to science, poetry, and philosophy. How do you switch between these lenses?
One of the great pleasures of flying, paradoxically, is the wonders we experience on the ground. Long-haul pilots, in particular, will be lucky enough to explore very much the whole world of whatever their interests are. To be on a ferry in Hong Kong, or in a café in Johannesburg, or on a bench in a park in Vancouver, and to be able to read about the history and literature and geography of such places—it’s a kind of interdisciplinary, fluid approach to both digital and actual “browsing”. I think the joy of moving easily through geography and history and everything else, as both airplanes and the Internet allow us to do, is something that I hope comes out in the book.
You seem sad to see the demise of paper charts with the advent of electronic charts. Is automation and the rise of digital technology taking some of the romance and craft out of flying?
I’m certainly glad to have known the era of paper charts in the cockpit—it’s something I’ll reminisce about to young co-pilots in future decades, I’m sure. But the iPad has replaced an entire library of on-board paper manuals, saving not just trees, fuel, too, so it’s hard to argue with the future. I do like the fact that the 747 isn’t fly-by-wire—it’s, again, something I’ll be glad to have experienced when I switch to the fuel-efficient 787 or A350 in future years.
“Skyfaring” is being celebrated, rightly so, as a tour de force, that rare aviation book that speaks to pilots and non-pilots alike. What do you do for an encore?
Very little of my writing before “Skyfaring” was about flying, so I guess the big question for a next book is: aviation or something else? I’d love to hear from readers about their favorite “unknown” historical figures and aerial adventures—any good stories that haven’t been told yet.