Monday, October 12, 2015

Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker

Source of book: I bought this as a gift for my dad, but couldn’t put it down once I started. Don’t worry, I'll give it to him soon.

A conversation I have had a few times goes kind of like this: A friend asks me, “Don’t you ever read books just for fun?” The reply is obvious - to me, at least. “Learning stuff is fun! So I am always reading for fun.” This isn’t completely accurate, though, I suppose. Even books that are enlightening can sometimes be dry or difficult in other ways. And, I have read the occasional dud that I finished mostly because the book was short and I have pride. But more than that, there are books that I will read just for the thrill of the experience. Most murder mysteries fall in this category.

But occasionally, there will be a book that I read that fills me with pure, unadulterated pleasure, a kind of bliss just from the sheer beauty. More often than not, this experience will come from poetry. Gitanjali, for example, or The Book of Hours. Or Dickinson or Frost - those always thrill me.

It doesn’t happen that often from prose. Sure, Wodehouse will make me laugh, but that pleasure is more earthy and less sublime.

Skyfaring is one of those extremely rare books that I can honestly say was pure pleasure, like a mountain top view, or the apotheosis of a Beethoven symphony.

Mark Vanhoenacker is a pilot for British Airways (although he never names the airline), currently flying the 747 on international routes. He originally studied history, obtaining a Masters degree, but quit during his PhD studies to get a job in Management Consulting, of all things. He picked that field because he would be able to travel regularly. Eventually, he realized that he really wanted to be a pilot, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

The Author

This circuitous route gave Vanhoenacker one significant advantage. He has an amazing breadth of knowledge and interests, and serious writing chops. I have read a few ghostwritten books - including a few that do not attribute the contributions of the ghostwriter. There is no way that this is a ghostwritten book. Nobody could just sit down and write like Vanhoenacker does. The writing is that of someone who is truly passionate and poetic about flight. He isn’t there to tell his story - biographical details are few and far between, and exist mainly to set the stage. Rather, this is poetry in prose, the musings of a true romantic as he is caught between earth, water, and sky.

There is only one true precedent that I am aware of: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Most know of him from The Little Prince, the fantasy “children’s” book (reviewed here), which is a true classic; but few are familiar with his luminous books about aviation. I first discovered him through Night Flight as a teen. At the time, I wasn’t much into tragedies, but the book was so achingly beautiful that I loved it even as I fought the inevitable ending.

A bit of fair disclosure. My dad was an Air Traffic Controller for a few decades, starting when I was a young child. Before and during that time, he was an amateur pilot as well, so I have memories of being up above the San Fernando Valley in a little Cherokee, bouncing about in the air currents. I spent a decent bit of time up in control towers, and in radar rooms on midnight shift, when my dad was the only controller on duty. Ah, the good old days, before 9/11 ruined everything, and you could still take kids to work with you.

Anyway, I grew up around aviation, and I have always loved airplanes. I still go to air shows whenever they are close, and can probably tell you more about how stuff works than most non-pilots. So this book was certainly right up my alley to begin with.

In one scene, the author describes going with his parents to the end of the runway at a small airport, to eat doughnuts and watch airplanes. We used to do this exact same thing. Except our airport was the Van Nuys Airport, and we used to pick up a bag of bagels from Western Bagel rather than doughnuts.

So, back to the book itself. Saint-Exupéry was more than just a pilot, although he was an excellent one. Likewise, Vanhoenacker flies, but he also soars. The book is filled with references to literature, from Saint-Exupéry - of course - to Byron to St. John of the Cross, and many others of poetic bent.

The content isn’t just ethereal, however. The author brings in a wealth of detail about the mechanics and technology of flying. Those of us familiar with cockpits and control towers will recognize many of the terms, certainly. And those familiar with aviation maps will likewise find themselves in familiar territory. What is most impressive about Vanhoenacker’s writing is the way he makes the technical details both interesting and understandable. One could gain a layman’s knowledge of the art of flying from this book. It never gets bogged down in details, but the details are there and important.

And then there is the science. I assume that the author had to learn a good bit of this from his training, but nonetheless, this is not fluff in that sense at all. For example, a portion of a chapter is spent explaining the four kinds of speed that a pilot needs to know: ground speed, indicated airspeed, true airspeed, and mach number. These are not the same at all, and at a given time may differ by hundreds of knots. I had a basic understanding of these terms before, but after reading this book, I could grasp the way they connect and affect many aspects of flying. The explanation is simple, yet detailed, and fits perfectly with the rest of the narrative.

It is this way throughout the book. Personal history will flow into poetry-in-prose, which will flow into a technical explanation, which will mesh with stories about specific flights, which will connect with people, which will then turn to philosophy.

It is all integrated somehow, and one never loses the pace or the magic of it all. I suspect that the author had an outstanding editor to help with the details of putting it all together, but there is so much that is clearly the voice of the author, lost in the wonder of the skies.

A few things stood out to me in particular. First, the author talks about how places are perceived differently from the air. When we drive places, we experience place as a sequence in time. We often lose how locations relate to each other in the big picture. In fact, sometimes places that are close together, but separated by a mountain, for example, are experienced as distant. It is not so from the air, where the true relation is revealed. I found this fascinating because of how my own mind functions. I love maps. I mean, I love maps. I study them in advance of any trip, memorizing as many details as I can. I have been this way since I was a child. Even now, I can draw the major streets of the San Fernando Valley (where I grew up) from memory - and also the Los Angeles and San Diego freeway systems. I almost experience location as if I was in the air. So I remember when we would go fly, I could usually pick out where we were on the ground just from my map-memory and the visible landmarks. Needless to say, I loved this part of the book. (For kindred spirits on this subject, I highly recommend On The Map, an amazing book.)

One of the interesting things that the author describes is what he calls “place lag.” Like the time lag we call “jet lag,” there is a sense of disorientation when one steps from one world to another. I haven’t flown that much in my life, and only once out of the country, so I have limited experience. But I can say that stepping off a plane that left Los Angeles into the grey gloom of England in the fall was a shock in many ways. It is an experience that one cannot truly duplicate by road, even when traveling from California to Utah - a common trip for me.

One conversation that the author recounts is interesting.

I might eat dinner with a member of the cabin crew at a Belgian restaurant in Beijing, and he might ask if I know this or that Thai restaurant in San Francisco, or a new cafe in Johannesburg that he heard about on his last trip to Sydney. Countries blur, cities elide.

In this global age, this has become common.

Returning to the technical jargon of flight, Vanhoenacker spends some time explaining the five-letter “waypoints” which pilots follow across the sky. Clearly those who name them have a sense of humor, as there are a lot of puns and jokes strewn across the sky. One of the best was a series leading across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. WALTZ followed by INGMA, followed by TILDA. My Aussie friends will appreciate that one.

Another in-joke that I loved was the way some of his fellow pilots would refer to the old days, when they were young: “back when Pontius was a pilot…”

There are a few books that I have read with a recognition of something that I know personally. Two Years Before the Mast is one, because it tells of the California I know and love. Even though the era is different, the landforms and the weather are instantly recognizable. Likewise in this book, when the author mentions the Santa Ana winds, which wreak havoc on the traffic pattern in Southern California. (My dad would mention these because they would turn Burbank Airport “north,” which was almost as bad as those tropical winter storms which would turn LAX “east,” and put the streams of traffic through those of other airports.)

As with Saint-Exupéry, the way that Vanhoenacker speaks of the night is magical. I am thoroughly jealous of his seeing the Auroras regularly from the air. But I completely understand when he talks about the way that “The Dark Night of the Soul” is misunderstood. St. John of the Cross speaks not of a time of doubting and casting about in the dark. He speaks of the way that things are seen more clearly in the dark, and how our journeys through that which we cannot see bring us closer to the transcendent.

One final bit, which occurs near the end. The final chapter is entitled “Return.” The author is traveling as a passenger again, and he sees a shadow far below the plane. He realizes that it is the shadow of the plane he is in. I remember the first time I experienced this, and it is the first time for the author.

I had never seen this before and I thought it might soon disappear. But the shadow stayed roughly in the same place in my window. It grew in size as the world hastened under it. I realized that the airplane and its growing shadow were approaching each other. After so many parted miles they would meet again at the moment of touchdown.
Only a few times since that morning have I seen the sun and the journey’s end aligned so well that the shadow of the jet appears and trembles on the land, as if in anticipation; as if the sound of the engines or the growing form in the sky has helped the shadow to remember what first cast it. Here is land, both noun and verb. Here we are, coming home.
The shadow keeps perfect pace with the widening wings. It crosses the earth as simply as the plane, as simply as our eye, or as if it was a kind of light, the mark made on the planet by our own falling gaze.

I kid you not. The rest of the book is beautiful like this, and to one who can thrill with its soaring, it is pure, unadulterated pleasure.


  1. Have you heard Ola Gjeilo's setting of (part of) Dark Night of the Soul?

    1. I feel like I have heard it somewhere, but not of it. Thanks for sharing. Cheers for 7/8 time!