Having taken flying lessons since his high school days, he became a commercial pilot at age 29 and now flies 747s for British Airways.
One of the best reasons to become a pilot, especially if you are from a cold and gray place, is the chance to surface from the world of clouds; to know that sunlight will be present on nearly every day of your working life,” writes Mark Vanhoenacker in Skyfaring, his evocative volume of observations on air travel.
The style and sensitivity of Vanhoenacker’s writing suggests that he’s as much a poet as a pilot. He infuses his writing with a boyish sense of wonder and an almost spiritual optimism.
Vanhoenacker, the gay son of a former priest, grew up in Massachusetts, and studied history in college. Having taken flying lessons since his high school days, he became a commercial pilot at age 29 and now flies 747s for British Airways.
Reading Skyfaring, or his occasional pieces in the New York Times and other publications, one is struck by the two ingredients that add up to Vanhoenacker’s particular gift as a writer: attention to detail and relentless curiosity.
For Slate, he wrote a series of columns called “What’s That Thing?” in which he reveals fascinating aspects of subjects many would find too mundane to spend time thinking about: What is the arrow shaped sticker on many hotel room ceilings around the world? (It’s called a Qibla point- er, and indicates the direction of mecca for disoriented Muslim travelers who want to say their daily prayers). What is the little hole on the upper-right side of many elevator doors? (It’s an emergency keyhole that provides emergency access to the elevator shaft. Think about it: The door you see when waiting for an elevator is not the elevator’s door at all.)
Vanhoenacker’s writing is likely to inspire readers to take closer note of their own surroundings, an activity he encourages by curating an online collection of photographs taken through airplane windows (www.skyfaring.com/gallery-new). It’s also likely to make you wish you could sit down and chat with him. In Passport’s case, we got lucky:
Your windowseat gallery project—and much of what you describe in Skyfaring — is very much based on the sense of sight, so I found it fascinating when you wrote about the unique smells of different destinations you fly to.
The places that tend to have the most distinctive smells are either trop- ical or near the sea, or both. Boston means a lot to me as I’m original- ly from near there. When you get off the plane, there’s sometimes a gust of air where the jetbridge meets the door, and depending on the wind you can smell the sea. My parents each moved to Boston in the 1960s (it’s where they met), and I like to imagine this smell is something that many generations of travelers to the city may have noticed. Places like Singapore have a very fragrant, humid air, that’s always warm. If you fly there when it’s winter at home, the first wave of that air hits you, feels almost like a different substance. And, of course, the fact that you can fly from the air of Boston to the air of Singapore (with a quick stop in the air of London) is the miracle of air travel.
Have you come across strangers reading your book on flights or in airports?
One afternoon last summer, I was on the train that runs between the main part of London Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and its two satellite buildings. A guy standing near me on the train was on the phone with his wife. He was looking at my name badge and said “honey, I’ll call you back!” He pulled my book out of his bag. I signed it and then had to jump off the train to get my flight. Sadly he wasn’t on my flight that day.
Are many of your pilot and crew colleagues able to connect with your rather sophisticated literary vision of airplane flight?
People fall in love with aviation for a lot of different reasons. I know colleagues who were drawn to flying by a love for the airplanes themselves, for these beautiful machines; or by the physical experience of flying; or out of a desire to travel the world, a feeling that has drawn young people to the sea for generations, and now to the air as well. I do think a lot of pilots are deeply romantic about what we see up there together: the sunrises, the stars, the single light on the ground in the middle of a dark desert, even if we don’t always talk about it in those terms on every flight.
As a child, did you also dream of being an astronaut, or is there something that specifically drew you to planes?
Like so many kids, I did have an astronaut phase, but mine didn’t last very long. I was always drawn to flying and to commercial aviation in particular. I always had a globe in my bedroom as a child and I have one now, too. One of the things that still fascinates me about airliners is how they connect us to the far side of the planet, and how they do it so routinely. I also think they’re beautiful, so obviously sculpted by air.
After planes, what other forms of transportation do you find most fascinating?
The modern airliner is a remarkable technical achievement for our species. It’s operating safely and efficiently in a quite extreme environment. Sometimes I feel a little bit like that about high-speed rail, too. I’ll be on a train in Japan or Europe, and I’ll watch the Japanese or French countryside racing past at 180 miles per hour, and I’ll think, ‘hmmm. Now we’re at the takeoff speed of a 747′. My brother is a bicycle fanatic, and he’s often making the argument that the bike has changed the world. It’s certainly a pretty good invention. The Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics, so maybe my fascination with airplanes and my brother’s love for bicycles aren’t so far apart.
You’ve written about spending vacation time in some very remote places, including the Mojave Desert and Namibia. Do they have a special appeal to you?
One thing an aspiring pilot should keep in mind about the job is that you’re going to spend a lot of time in very big cities, especially when you fly a plane like the 747, which connects some of the largest cities on Earth. I love exploring cities, but I definitely have an affinity for empty places too.
When you’re a longhaul pilot, you spend a lot of time flying over those empty places on the way to those big cities, and it’s a good reminder of how much of the world is still beautifully untouched by urbanization. I think a wide desert landscape is often as appealing to me as a crowded urban marketplace (though the food is usually better in the latter). Some of the cities I love best are places like Vancouver or Cape Town, where you can be in open nature within a few minutes of leaving town.
Have you found any particular challenges to being a gay man in your profession?
One of the great things about the job is how meritocratic it is. The standards, while obviously very high, are also clear and very easily assessed. I think aviation is generally a great environment to work in. In my experience it’s as worldly and cosmopolitan as you would expect from a community that regularly interacts with so much diversity, all over the plan- et, and that makes a living out of bringing people together.
How does your job impact your relationship with your partner?
It’s certainly hard to be away from home, but one of the nice aspects of traveling is that I can do a lot of the paperwork of life (bills, tax returns, making dentist appointments) while I’m in a hotel overseas. That makes time at home more valuable for both of us. Mark comes on a lot of my trips too, and then being a pilot can feel more like a vacation than a job.
How does the process of writing compare to flying a plane?
There’s a long history of pilots who have put a pen to paper. There’s a kinship between a story and a flight (or any journey). You start somewhere; some things happen; and then you arrive somewhere new, transported, even if as a passenger or reader. A writer’s work, of course, isn’t constrained by an airline’s strict schedule, a jet’s finite quantity of fuel, or the vagaries of meteorology. And a writer has more freedom than a pilot to meander in the airspace between departure and destination. Another big difference is that writing, at least the first stages of it, is quite solitary, whereas flying an airliner is very much a team effort. After an afternoon of the solitude of writing, heading off across the world with a group of colleagues is often a pleasing change.
Do you eat airline food or do you always ‘brown bag’ it?
I like airplane food, but if I’m not careful I can end up having four or five meals on a long day, especially on a westbound flight on which the sun can be up for a very long time. Recently, British Airways has offered business class passengers an egg and bacon panini before arrival at Heathrow after an overnight flight from the US. They’re really, really good. Contrary to popular belief, as pilots we don’t eat first- class food. Customers in first class can eat whenever they want, so in practice there’s nothing left over.