The miracle of aviation — “Skyfaring” by 747 pilot Mark Vanhoenacker

By Caitlin Kelly

Temple roof, Mae Hong Son, Thailand -- right across the street from the airport!
Temple roof, Mae Hong Son, Thailand — right across the street from the airport!

Do you love the smell of JP4 — jet fuel — as much as I do?

Live to plane-spot?

Enjoy the app FlightRadar24.com, which tracks every commercial flight in the world, offering its starting and ending points, time left in flight, airline, flight number and aircraft model?

This is your book!

Isn't this cover gorgeous?
Isn’t this cover gorgeous?

The author, who is American, came late to aviation — 2003 — and now pilots 747s for British Airways on long-haul flights.

Here’s a Q and A with him from The New York Times:

When you fly from London to Tokyo, you go into the Arctic and it’s a night flight. You leave London in the afternoon and you get to Tokyo in the morning. So it’s a night flight. But the sun never goes down because in those higher latitudes it doesn’t go down at all during the summer. So you fly into that area where it’s continuous sunlight, and by the time you’re flying out of that area, it’s morning where you are. But sometimes you turn south a bit and the sun will set. Then when you climb, you get higher — just a few thousand feet can make the sun rise again because you’re still getting that higher vantage point over the top of the Earth. And so, you can get three or four in the flight. It really makes you question what exactly is a day. It’s sunrise to sunset, or is it?

His book is lovely and lyrical and completely captures so many of the fleeting, private feelings that aviation inspires.

Like this passage:

“It’s four days later. I’m at home, standing sleepily by the sink. The water runs over the soles of my sneakers, sweeping the African dust brightly over the stainless steel. I have to say it in my head, practically to spell it out, ‘This is the red of the soil under the South African tree, from the morning I saw the weavers and their nests.’ I think of the term earth, both soil and planet; this earth could not have expected to meet this water, here.”

The only child of a couple that lived to travel the world I’ve been flying from an early age, my first solo trip from Toronto to Antigua, age seven.

I love the expression “turning left” — i.e. into the first class cabin — a place I’ve yet to experience. I’ve enjoyed business class a few times.

I’m enough of a geek that I often stay to the very end when disembarking just to say hello to the pilots and sneak a peek into the cockpit or ask a question. I once noticed retro-fitted winglets on one aircraft, mentioned them to the pilot, who lit up with pride and pleasure that anyone had even noticed.

When flying home to Toronto from Westchester, NY, I end up in propeller planes so small — maybe 10 seats per side — I call them the cigar tube.

Other memorable flights I’ve taken:

— Flying into Nairobi, the city suddenly appearing out of nowhere like a handful of Legos tossed into dust, Isak Dinesen’s Ngong Hills nearby

I was lucky enough to go there in my 20s
I was lucky enough to go there in my 20s

— Flying out of Charles de Gaulle, in Paris, and its weird space-age tube-enclosed escalators

— My longest flight, 15 hours, from Los Angeles to Sydney

– A crazy flight into Cuzco, aboard Faucett, that made like a sewing machine needle, up and down through cloud cover, seeking that airport’s only runway between the Andes. Shriek!

– An astonishingly luxurious trip aboard a 767 aboard Open Skies, flying from JFK to Orly, fitted normally for 300 passengers, that held about 80 people. The seats were so wide I could tuck my legs beneath me sideways. Heaven!

— The flight from Managua to Bilwi (coastal town) where they weighed every passenger because the plane was so small

Our flight from Managua to Bilwi
Our flight from Managua to Bilwi

— Flying from Caracas to Los Roques in a plane where every bit of writing was Cyrillic, a former Russian aircraft

— Heading north from Kujuuaq, Quebec to Salluit, Quebec, a town of 500 people near the Arctic Circle, landing on a small, narrow landing strip of — what else? — ice

— Smuggling my hamster Pickles underneath my coat in a specially-made box from Toronto to Edinburgh for the summer (before the use of security checks and Xray machines)

Our aircraft from Managua to Bilwi -- and back!
Our aircraft from Managua to Bilwi — and back!

Tell us about some of your most memorable flights!

14 thoughts on “The miracle of aviation — “Skyfaring” by 747 pilot Mark Vanhoenacker

  1. This is such a fabulous post. I’m obsessed all things aviation, but because I’m in a season of life where I don’t fly much, it’s not an interest that’s being nurtured these days. And then I read a lovely post such as this, and I’m instantly taken back to my jet-setting days. I was a flight attendant for Delta in the late ’90s and left shortly after 9/11. My most memorable flight was one where we ferried a plane (no passengers, just crew) to Bermuda to work a flight back to LaGuardia. I sat in the cockpit for landing on a runway that wasn’t much more than a short strip mid-sea. Breathtaking, visceral, jolting — I loved every second of it. The longest flight I ever worked was Atlanta to Tokyo. Another memorable flight, though I didn’t think much of it at the time was the night before 9/11. I had deadheaded to New York to work a flight back to Atlanta, and because the runways were congested, we circled the city before we were cleared for landing. The Manhattan skyline never disappoints from a plane, and now, knowing the tragedy that occurred just hours later, I’m grateful I had a window seat where I could drink in the city before it was altered forever. I will certainly check out Skyfaring. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I just flew home, and you know what? I’m already working on forgetting most of it. Honestly, I hate flying. Heights scare me more than a bit, the seats are uncomfortable, the planes are always cold. I think the only time I’ve enjoyed a flight is the one from Toronto to Columbus on Monday, when I made a new friend on the plane (we bonded over nerdy stuff like anime, Game of Thrones, and horror novels). That hour and a half, I totally forget we were speeding through the air like a giant aluminum bullet.

  3. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Friday links | A Bit More Detail

  4. wow, you’ve had so many aviary adventures. i can see why this would appeal to you. i love to fly as it always means ‘adventure’ to me, even if heading off for work. memorable flight – the one where i was heading to chicago and due to extreme turbulence, and a flight attendant was crying and screaming. once we landed, she want back to normal as if it had never happened.

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