Riddle Reads…. Skyfaring

Our literary arbiter runs her eye over Mark Vanhoenacker’s memoir as he swapped management consulting for the cockpit

Review by Kate Slotover

What are we reading?

‘Skyfaring’ by Mark Vanhoenacker.

Is it sci-fi?

Far from it. Imagine a normal day’s work, which for many of us might consist of a morning commute, some meetings, some staring at the computer, a bit of surreptitious Facebook checking, lunch from the usual place on the corner – or maybe, now the weather warms up, a sandwich in the park – and then train or bus home for dinner. Imagine instead if work consisted of flying a 350-ton aircraft holding 400 passengers and crew thousands of miles across the globe.

Do I still get the coffee on the corner? 

Yes, it’s just the corner might be in Cape Town one day, Tokyo another.

So Vanhoenacker is an airline pilot?

Yes, but interestingly aviation wasn’t his first choice as a career. After graduating he opted for management consulting, reasoning it was a business in which he’d be likely to do the most travel. After a few years of this, however, and many a cockpit visit Vanhoenacker finally decided to follow his boyhood dream and train as a pilot.’I think the main reason I didn’t decide earlier to become a pilot’ he writes, ‘is because I believed that something I wanted so much could never be practical, almost by definition.’

In an age of cheap air travel most people will have flown enough to consider it a routine necessity. Given his schedule we might expect Vanhoenacker to feel the same, but what comes across is his passion and sense of wonder at his job, the elements he flies through, and the feat of engineering that is the Boeing 747.

What’s the plot? 

There isn’t one really. The book is divided into sections with general titles such as ‘Place’, ‘Air’, ‘Water’, ‘Encounters’, and within these themes Vanhoenacker frames his recollections and observations. Some of it is personal; he touches on his family history (his father had a great passion for aviation) and he carefully describes the strange bond that forms between airline crews who work together for short intense periods and then may not see each other again for months.

The ‘Machine’ chapter includes much of the more detailed information readers of an aviation book might be expecting and Vanhoenacker clearly relishes the technical aspects of his work. He is good at scale: a particularly vivid image is conjured up when he describes how the enormous aircraft is turned by the action of a dial no bigger than his thumbnail. Surprisingly Vanhoenacker avoids any mention of safety concerns or problems encountered; in fact for anyone anxious about flying there is a strong sense of reassurance that comes from his knowledge and trust in the physics and engineering behind his aircraft and in the training and professionalism of those who work in the aviation industry.

So it’s a good one for an aviation geek? 

There’s plenty of technical stuff in there to delight the heart of anyone who grew up with the ‘Boy’s Book of Aviation’ by their bedside. Flying round the world so regularly gives Vanhoenacker a singular perspective, what he calls ‘an almost planetary sensibility’. Thus in practical terms seen through his eyes the world is nearly empty – while we might think in terms of populated places we have visited he is aware that you can fly for hours and hours over Canada or Russia, say, and know that the land far below is uninhabited and largely uninhabitable. Meanwhile he describes a map unknown to most of us, that of the sky, which is carved up into named sections that may or may not correspond with the countries that lie beneath. Above South America, for example, lies ‘Amazonica’ while a large area over the central and southern Atlantic is known as ‘Atlantico’. A global network of radio beacons adds another layer of complexity to this invisible chart.

Beyond this Vanhoenacker has a broader, more philosophical agenda: ‘A measure of longing is attached to any mode of travel…. By definition every traveller wishes, or needs, to be somewhere else…. flight, which takes us so far to or from what we love, embodies this longing most directly.’ As anyone who has experienced long-haul travel can tell you, the sense of what is most important to us back down on the ground is never sharper than when viewed from 39,000 feet, and Vanhoenacker explores this idea in many intriguing ways.

Recommended then? 

An unexpectedly lyrical memoir on a fascinating subject. A minor criticism is that is a long book with a tendency to drift; much like the feeling you get nine hours into a thirteen-hour flight you may find yourself wanting just to get somewhere. But I would suggest that rather than being read straight through this is a book designed to dipped into and lingered over. The destination is important but mostly it’s about enjoying the journey. Whether reading it in your armchair of from the window-seat on a plane Skyfaring will give you a delightfully fresh perspective on the wonder that is air travel.

Further reading:

Out of Africa’, Isak Dinesen’s memoir of the years she lived in Kenya managing her coffee farm, ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ by Richard Bach and ‘Night Flight ‘by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Saint Exupéry is best known for his children’s book The Little Prince, but he was an airman by professionand at heart and wrote poetically about the subject). For more on the philosophical side of travel try’The Art of Travel’ by Alain de Botton and more practically ‘A Week at the Airport’, written as a result of his writer-in-residence position at London’s Heathrow. ‘Skyfaring’ is published by Chatto & Windus. riddle_stop 2

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