The Saturday Read -Mark Vanhoenacker ‘Skyfaring’

This week’s ‘Saturday Read’ is for all of you who keep your window sashes up on transcontinental flights. And for those of you who don’t, author and pilot, Mark Vanhoenacker has a link on his website to share a glimpse of what you have been missing. And it’s not the grainy black and white video from the camera mounted underneath those Swiss Air flights.

The ‘Saturday Read’ is ‘Skyfaring: A Journey With A Pilot’.

What do we know of the work lives of pilots? These are the folks we trust to transport us across oceans, continents, cities and deserts. Our only contact through hours of flight is a welcome message, flight status update or a ‘thank you for choosing our airline’.

Turns out, pilots can be very interesting people. And, like many of us, they arrive at their ‘dream job’ after trying out other options. Mark Vanhoenacker’s career began in academia and management consulting. He started his flight training in 2001 after realizing all those plane flights were constant reminders of what he really wanted to do with his life.

Geoff Dyer reviewed the book for The Guardian newspaper:

“There is always something uplifting about people in love with their work, and on becoming an airline pilot Vanhoenacker (now a senior first officer with British Airways) seems to have attained a state of enviable grace. He loves everything about the job: the machinery, the language, the physics, the maps, the weather (always sunny up there above the lid of cloud), his colleagues, the rituals in which multiple layers of safety are embedded and encoded.”

Dwight Gardner‘s review in The New York Times cited “the intellectual and emotional delights of flying…

Mr. Vanhoenacker speaks often in “Skyfaring” about poetry and art and music. In Paris, he heads for the Musée Rodin. He has a well-stocked mind. Cumulus clouds remind him of the ceilings in the New York Public Library or Versailles; the earth’s rotation summons for him a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Gilead.” He mentions pilots who go to cooking schools or visit botanical gardens wherever they go.

Thus one of the vivid things about this book is that is makes you imagine the men and women who pilot the machines that fly over our heads as a merry band of scholars and aesthetes, rather than glorified bus drivers. It’s as if they’re racing up there to pluck the world’s best cultural fruit, fruit we are too hidebound to seek except rarely.”

And when Mr. Vanhoenacker is not flying the plane:

“One of my favorite things to do as a passenger is put music on and look out at the world. I think airplanes are one of the few places you can zone out. When you fly as a passenger you definitely have this meditative space. I never use Wi-Fi as a passenger.”  

In the first few pages of ‘Lift’, the first section of the book, the author shares three questions people ask when they learn he is a pilot:

“Is flying something I have always wanted to do? Have I ever seen anything “up there” that I cannot explain? And do I remember my first flight? I like these questions. They seem to have arrived, entirely intact, from a time before flying became ordinary and routine. They suggest that even now, when many of us so regularly leave one place on the earth and cross the high blue to another, we are not nearly as accustomed to flying as we think. These questions remind me that while airplanes have overturned many of our older sensibilities, a deeper part of our imagination lingers and still sparks in  the former realm, among ancient, even atavistic, ideas of distance and place, migrations and the sky.”

If this book doesn’t rekindle the wonder of air flight, check to see if you can still fog up a mirror. For those of you still breathing, invest some time this weekend to take flight with Mark Vanhoenacker as your pilot and rediscover the joy of getting lost in the clouds.

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