Mark Vanhoenacker |

Mark Vanhoenacker

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Mark Vanhoenacker is a Belgian-American airline pilot and author. He is a Boeing 787 pilot with British Airways and is also frequent contributor for the New York Times, Slate and the Financial Times with a focus on aviation. (Wikipedia)

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Skyfaring: a Journey with a Pilot Skyfaring: Aug 17, 2015
review by Bruce FLyingSinger Irving

Mark is an American who ended up flying 747s for British Airways (now 777). Hes also an excellent writer.

It's our experience of a truth we could never have evolved to grasp easily: that the whole world, every place, is going on at once.

I've just finished Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker. It's a great and eye-opening book that intersects many interests and thoughts I have had over the years.

Mark Vanhoenacker:

One great thing is the focus on many details of flying, which naturally appeals to the aviation geek and lapsed pilot in me. But it connects more with my experiences as a passenger and international traveler, with all the stuff that I experience as simultaneously mundane and amazing.

"Place lag" is an interesting way to see it.

I'm sleeping in a bed in China maybe 24 hours after leaving one in Massachusetts. Mark has a way of illuminating such experiences better than I ever could. For example...

"The most curious aspect of the pilot's life may not be that we work in the air. It is that our world on the ground -- the realm of places we know well, and that we connect to other places, the world that for a child begins with the rooms at home, and then expands to the backyard, and to the neighborhood -- is so enormous.

The job induces an almost planetary sensibility, a mental geography that rounds countries and continents as easily as you follow turns in a path through a familiar wood."

I've often looked out the window on long flights at stars or at white specks in northern oceans -- icebergs? Ocean swells? Whales?

When I'm flying to Asia, it still boggles my mind to be over northern Alaska or Siberia, and I often document this with photos of the video screen flight map.

Of course in recent years I've tended to try to follow jet-lag sleep protocols, and to have an aisle seat or keep the shades down. But I still want to see and understand what's on the ground and in the air whenever I can. Mark explores so many of these viewpoints, seeing from the right seat of an Airbus or now 747 much more than I could ever see even if I flew more frequently.

There is tons of "pilot stuff" that I sort of knew but could really appreciate with fresh eyes from Mark's explanations and analogies. Here's one example:

"Imagine a cardboard outline of the plane, loosely fixed to a bulletin board with a pin, free to rotate. If the engines are below the plane's center of gravity -- i.e., if they are hanging from the wings, then when power is added, the plane rotates around the pin.

The nose rises, and the tail falls. This effect, the pitch-power couple, results in some counterintuitive flight maneuvers.

For example, when we abort a landing and climb rapidly upward, we add power and pull back on the control column to bring the nose up. But as the thrust increases, as the engines spool up, the pitch-power couple quickly becomes so strong that we must reverse our inputs and start to push down on the control column even as we wish to continue climbing."

Here are a few other sections of text that I highlighted. As with many good books, I feel I could enjoy and benefit from immediately reading it again. But the book backlog makes this quite unlikely:

" Boston, historically and still in its self-imagination, is first of all a port, and its harbor remains a busy place. In echoes of both Kitty Hawk and the city's maritime past, the busy runways of its airport stand so near to the water that mariners coming to Boston today might be forgiven for thinking they are about to dock at the airport; air passengers, meanwhile, might think they are on a seaplane, so late does proper New England ground appear in the window. "

Mark devotes several pages to interesting waypoint names around the world] Even the region's speech -- WIKID, followed by PAHTI, classic Boston speech -- seems to be mapped. There's even a NIMOY waypoint; Leonard was born in Boston.

" Unlike rain, which appears from nowhere on the surface of the windows, if we see it at all, snowflakes in these beams appear as actual objects, as a new storm of spotlit ghostly flakes that fly continuously toward and over us.

And so it is snow that gives us the rarest glimpse of the aircraft's true speed. Snowstorms, after all, are the only time visible objects are so close to us in flight. The racetrack pace of the streaming snow is like nothing so much as the graphics used to indicate fast travel in science-fiction movies -- stars that motion turns to perfect white lines across the darkness.

The heat of a fire causes air to rise rapidly above it, which may then form a cloud known as a pyrocumulus. Ice can sometimes form in this fire-born apparition.

A jet that departs from Singapore to London may weigh 380 tons. About a tenth of that may be useful payload, while more than 150 tons, or two-fifths, is fuel, nearly all of which will be gone before landing.

The dial for selecting the heading is called the heading selector. Turn this dial, roughly the size of a dime, to turn a 747.

Once, over Siberia, I saw a river, its motion frozen whole upon the land. At home I looked it up; it was the Lena, from which Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov is said to have taken the alias Lenin, as if Lincoln or Churchill had adopted some version of Mississippi or Thames."

Review written 8/17/15 on HSR train from Beijing to Shanghai

Mark Vanhoenacker: