SKYFARING: A Journey With a Pilot
by Mark Vanhoenacker, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2015, $25.95.
Mark Vanhoenacker is a British Airways 747 first officer. He came to his livelihood in a roundabout fashion, with some casual interest in aviation as a teenager but not enough to keep him from a career as a management consultant. Tiring of that, he signed up for a classically British cadet course that led straight to an Airbus 320 flight deck. (“Enjoy your last solo flight,” said one American instructor as he waved Vanhoenacker’s Cessna off on a cross-country. “When you return to England to start your instrument training…you will never again in your life be alone in an airplane.”)
Vanhoenacker is unusually talented. We can assume that he was good at his job in the business world. He is obviously a respected 747 pilot. And this, his first book, shows that he is a writer who will be compared to Ernest K. Gann, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, William Langewiesche, Richard Bach and the few others who inhabit the pantheon of great writers who have concerned themselves with the wonderment of airplanes.
Skyfaring starts slowly, and those who are hoping to find airplanes, machinery and cockpit stories might be disappointed. But the aviation lore will come, though with the proviso that this book was written for a general audience, not rivet-counting anoraks. Ultimately, this is as much a travel book as it is an airline pilot’s memoir. Vanhoenacker deals evocatively with the world that unrolls below his windscreen. As he flies, he constantly wonders, “What’s going on down there? Why? Who lives in Nebraska? What do those lights in the middle of Mongolia mean? Why does Cape Town smell different than Cape Cod? Why am I up here while people are down there?”
Vanhoenacker’s book is full of vivid imagery—contrails “streaming like ballet ribbons,” “planes moving on the ground often remind me of large seals dragging themselves over a beach”—and his senses miss nothing. The popular view of an airline pilot’s life is that it involves hours of boredom, yet Vanhoenacker’s hours aloft don’t hold enough minutes to contain his curiosity and sense of wonder.
If Skyfaring betrays a fault, it’s that Vanhoenacker, a sometime blogger, too often reflects the unedited, self-important blogosphere school of writing. Novelist Saul Bellow once wrote that a writer’s job should be to make sense of “the vast mass of phenomena, the seething, swarming body of appearances, facts and details….a writer tries to rescue what is important.” To Vanhoenacker, everything he sees through his windscreen or passenger seat window seems important, and his book needed an editor with a sharp pruning saw.
But never mind the quibbles; perhaps this review needs a pruning saw. Just know that an aviation book this good comes along once a decade, if that.