Equal parts boyish wonder, engineering detail and mile-high philosophy, Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring is a must-read for travellers and plane fans alike, writes Chris Rowlands.
If you’ve ever travelled in the window seat of an aeroplane, on a journey long or short, then you’ve been treated to one of the 21st century’s least celebrated, most quietly treasured experiences: a view across the world from a perch above it, peering through a small porthole onto humanity going about its business.
Such is the premise of Skyfaring, an ode to all things air travel – and what an ode it is.
Penned by Mark Vanhoenacker, a management consultant-turned-pilot, it reads less as a technical compendium of all that’s amazing about commercial aircraft (though there’s certainly a hint of that), more as a reflective collection of shared consciousness,
Take his exposition of what he calls ‘place lag’ – that sense of having been in one place at the start of a journey and, somehow, having ended up somewhere entirely different, without having done all that much.
“As any excellent travel writer can, Vanhoenacker discusses seemingly everyday objects and occurrences – clouds, cities, air itself – in a manner that makes them magical”
It puts into words a sensation that’s been shared by almost all travellers who’ve ever taken a journey, even a short hop over to Europe, and it explores in more elegant prose than I could hope to recreate just why that experience is both unnerving and magical at the very same time.
Similarly, Vanhoenacker delights in celebrating the secrets, the privileged experiences, of pilots and, to some extent, passengers at 39,000 feet.
As any excellent travel writer can, Vanhoenacker discusses seemingly everyday objects and occurrences – clouds, cities, air itself – in a manner that makes them magical, that makes the person too busy to think actually take a moment and reflect on the fact that, for example, air has a weight just as concrete.
Vanhoenacker, of course, benefits from possessing a poetic turn of phrase, a style of writing that serves up single sentences that will leave you thinking upon them for hours.
Take his musing on the fact that planes cannot, in fact, reverse: “This small but necessary reversal, the need to push a plane backwards 100 metres before releasing it to move forwards 6000 miles, still strikes me as curious, as if the motions of airliners over the planet were as simple as that of toy planes that must first be pulled back along the floor.”
All of this is done, though, from the angle of a man not wanting to claim it for himself; in fact, he’s at pains to stand back from it. This is an exploration pursued by a man who loves the very notion of journey-making, of taking a plane and moving somewhere new, of travel as a verb. He’s not wont to show off; rather, Vanhoenacker creates a sense of shared experience, a secret dream in which all travellers enter the world of the plane and all it entails – and enjoy it.
That said, there’s plenty that’s personal about Skyfaring, too. From the long commutes he’s made himself, to particularly unique flights, to one-night stops in far-flung cities and just how surreal they feel.
In many ways, though, that only serves to heighten the sense of inclusion. Skyfaring feels like a complete picture, an aeroplane window watercolour that’s been daubed by the journeys of man – journeys that many of us have made or will make – who’s always been observing, thinking about just what it is that makes flying so unique a method of movement.
“This is an exploration pursued by a man who loves the very notion of journey-making, of taking a plane and moving somewhere new, of travel as a verb.”
Vanhoenacker discusses borders, for example: the borders of countries, and the smaller borders – the edge of the taxiway – that make up all of our lives, and how these are mirrored on aeroplanes. Those are borders we can all see and experience from the aeroplane window, if only we take the time.
He explores the technicalities and unique challenges of actually flying these huge silver beasts, too, graceful as they appear in the air. One such idiosyncrasy is the altitude display, which relies on several factors that, at ground level, can confusingly combine to show that the plane is supposedly beneath the ground. Something laughable – remarkable, even, if you believe in the certainty of instruments – yet never seen by passengers.
Beyond this, Vanhoenacker explores the personal bonds formed and lost with other airline crew, the human blood that courses through the cranium of these space-age jets, as well as the details that occur to each of them; their favourite three-letter airport code, for example, or how each and every one might struggle to spot their own home town from the air – but could probably make out Paris.
Yes, this reads as a collection of reflections, with less of a firm thread than many might prefer – but that’s only right for a book that looks to highlight at once the glory of air travel and its inevitable interruptions, peculiarities and difficulties.
In Skyfaring, Vanhoenacker looks both down on the world and around him, at the sky and at the machine in which he sits, in awe and wonder, with a questioning eye that unearths many a thought we’ve all encountered but never exposited.
Reading Skyfaring feels like a private discussion, one that will inevitably speak to some part of you, if ever you’ve travelled, or lusted after an aeroplane, or wandered about boundaries and borders, or fed your inquisitive eye with thoughts through an aeroplane window.
Who better to surmise it than Vanhoenacker himself: “From above the clouds and within them, we might have been over any place, in any age. But below them it is this day, off this country, and I see that the plane I’m on is just one of many ships coming to the Netherlands from far across a generality of water.”
Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring was first published by Vintage in 2016. It is available from Amazon here.
WORDS BY CHRIS ROWLANDS