“People fly for many reasons. But the calculus narrows considerably as calendars and circumstance close in upon a specific flight. The plane is a narrow channel between two lakes of place, a bottleneck between the sloshing social randomness of daily life in each of two distant cities…I did not expect my work to reveal so clearly the circulations of humanity in this age, the spectrum of impulses, ancient and otherwise, that may direct someone today to set course across the planet.” (p. 252)
Skyfaring represents a rare category of book. It is written by a professional, excited about his or her craft, passionate even, yet written capably to distill the elements of their experience and working knowledge to the pulp of content which the civilians among us would be glad to know. Moreover, the writer has accomplished this through more than a few moments of striking poetry which transcend the prose of most autobiographical material.
Our author’s topic? Passenger flight.
Specifically, Mark Vanhoenacker, through the vehicle of single word chapter headings (“Lift”, “Air”, “Night” as examples), describes his 12-year experience of being a commercial airline pilot. Flying the behemoth 747 at the time of authorship on regular cross-continental tracks, Mark relates the place-lagged experience of the day-to-day of his career. He speaks often of the ungrounded, untethered strangeness of being in, say, London one day, Cape Town the next, and back to his home in London the day after that.
It is clear, though, that Mark views such disorientation as less of a burden and more of a point of contemplation and fascination. Musing upon the mechanics and humanity of the flight experience, he sees them as intertwined, and the author at times employs almost mystical or religious terminology to describe such merging:
“From the window seat our focal point crosses between the personal and the planetary so smoothly that such movement seems to hint at a new species of grace, that we would come to only in the sky. Whatever our idea of the sacred, our simplest questions – how the one relates to the many, how time equates to distance, how the present rests on the past as simply as our lights lie on each night’s darkened sphere – are rarely framed as clearly as they are by the oval window of an airplane. We look through it, over snowcapped cordilleras in the last red turn of the day, or upon the shining night-palmistry of cities, and we see that the window is a mirror, briefly raised above the world.” (p. 17)
Other times, Vanhoenacker gets his head out of the clouds to describe, almost always with the perfect balance of technical accuracy and everyday language, the more mundane topics of modern commercial flight: how the aircraft is navigated, the practicalities of pilots exchange turns sleeping on long-haul flights, and where the pilot goes once the last passenger has left the plane and the cleaning crew is restocking the barf bags.
This volume would make a top-notch travel book, especially if your next trip involves air travel. And if you get to the part where Mark advises you how to ask for a tour of the cockpit after the flight, why not give it a go.