'Skyfaring' is a journey with a pilot

Part memoir, part diary, Mark Vanhoenacker shares his story as a pilot.

“You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.... That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop, the 'Twilight Zone.'” Or the signpost reads Gate 15; the next stop is Topeka, Kansas; and the Boeing 747 at the end of the jetway occupies all known dimensions of your mind. Boarding is lunatic. You are going to do something dangerous and stupid, like eating one of those deadly fishes unless it is prepared just so, or being close enough to notice the junkyard dog’s restraining rope is badly frayed. You are about to fly.

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot does not allay these feelings, much as the gentleman who fell into the crevasse and, with no hope of climbing out, decided to crawl deeper didn’t help us claustrophobes. Mark Vanhoenacker equates flying not with fear – which is good, as he may be piloting that 747 you’re on right now – but with wonder, mystery, and joy. Flying is the special gift he has grasped: the grand prize for following his dreams. He caught the aviation bug when just a boy – in other words, when he was immortal – took piloting lessons as a teenager, made as many long flights as he could as a passenger, then got a job that allowed him to travel by plane often, before finally caving to the yearning: flight school.

"Skyfaring" is part memoir, part diary. Chapters often start with “I’m at a small airfield in Massachusetts,” “I’m in the window seat,” “I’m thirteen.” It does not proceed chronologically but environmentally, with chapter names like “Lift,” “Wayfinding,” “Night,” “Water,” and “Encounter.” He never identifies his employers, but it is not long after he gets his license that he is behind the wheel of an Airbus. A menacingly slim puddle jumper, but a mere toy compared to his next vehicle: the biggest tent in the circus, the fabled 747. As much as flight bewitches him, Vanhoenacker is open to the beauty and meaning of terrestrial place: “It is right that our first hours in a city feel wrong.” One moment, “I’ll be watching the flight instruments and drinking tea over Pakistan or Chad or Greenland”; the next, he lands in the dead of night and hops a bus into town: “All I could think of was that we were stealing into Delhi, strangers to the city in both time and place.”

Vanhoenacker nails the imagery, up there and down here. Entering a cloud: “a quick rumble as we dive into the difference of sky . . . we fly out the other side, and it all returns in the cleanest instant”; crossing the Sea of Japan: “It is as if . . . all other blues are to be mined or diluted from this one.” There are restricted airspaces, where a sultan or a prime minister doesn’t want to be disturbed or, to be more generous, killed. Upon viewing an aurora: “The snowy earth began to resemble the older world, a deep stage rather than a screen, surrounded by layers of thick curtains of shimmering blue-green light.” St. Elmo’s fire burns like “static that appears as startling bursts of flat blue veins.” There is the palmistry of lights over the great cities, which readers may find rises the hairs on the back of your neck: “Sometimes, in a very remote area . . . you might see only a single light. A vast sea of darkness . . . and, floating on it, a solitary light.”

When it comes to the magic of flight, Vanhoenacker delivers a more glancing blow. Yes, it is an atavistic calling, worthy of Homer and mythology. He tries to flush those moments of calling – the man’s in heaven, after all – but they stay out of sight. “In music, comedy, science, we respond to the revealing of relationships we did not see at first, or did not expect to find so pleasing. Flight is the cartographic, planetary equivalent of hearing a song covered by a singer you love, or meeting for the first time a relative whose features and mannerisms are already familiar.” Uncanny but not sublime. Yet maybe piloting a 747 is a mystery until experienced; one good reason for the wordineffable. We should be very moved by sentences like, “There is no doubt, this is Mongolia that rolls into view as ordinarily as the day,” but the flow state is perhaps best appreciated vicariously, by the look in the flow-stater’s eyes, not words. Is it possible for Michael Jordan to put into words what it was like that night he simply couldn’t miss? Or the feeling of composing a great poem or song, when the melding of it and you is complete?

Many pilots say that the cluster of challenges during takeoff and landing – dangerous enough to liquefy the intestines of even the bravest souls – are what flying’s all about. Bully for them. The only part that is worse for me is when the no-smoking and seatbelt lights wink off and I race to the back of the plane only to be met by a full complement of “Occupied” indicators. Vanhoenacker has his own private restroom, which is transcendent enough for those of us seated in coach.

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