Author/Pilot Mark Vanhoenacker Captures the Magic of Flight
By Nichole Dupont
Last year, on a flight from JFK to San Juan, my 11-year-old son was only concerned with two things. One, was I sure the hotel had a pool? And two, did I book him a window seat on the flight? Yes, and yes. I looked over his shoulder as we said goodbye to rainy New York in April, and again as we descended over the blue waters of the Caribbean. I wondered how many people had enjoyed this view before me. But air travel is something we too often take for granted, or even loathe, and author Mark Vanhoenacker says we shouldn’t. The 747 pilot has just published his first book, Skyfaring (Knopf 2015), which is part metaphysical contemplation, part memoir, and part intro to aviation engineering. It encourages readers to sit back and truly enjoy the modern magic that is flying.
“On a simple level, I wrote the book to show what my job is like,” says Vanhoenacker via phone from New York. He’s taking a little bit of time off from flying to promote the book stateside (it was released in the U.K. in April). “Some people, actually a lot of people, don’t like to fly. I’m hoping that those people will read the book and think it’s a pretty cool thing to do sometimes. C’mon — you’re looking DOWN at the clouds!”
Vanhoenacker will be on the ground on Friday, June 19 at The Bookstore in Lenox to read and sign his book on, as it turns out, his native soil. The well-traveled pilot, who began flying commercially when he was 29 years old, grew up in the rolling Berkshire hills and returns to the area regularly to be with friends and family. This place, he says, even after long jaunts to Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Sao Paulo and nearly every other major city in the world, will always be home to him.
“A lot of the world is kind of hot and crowded. I’m actually glad to come from a place that has seasons, even winters — I know, I know,” he laughs. “Because I fly a 747, we usually only go to the biggest cities and my first inclination when we land is to leave it and find the hiking trails.”
Not an easy feat when one is in, say, Hong Kong for the day. But Vanhoenacker has done it, and insists that there is “tons of open space” on the islands that surround one of Asia’s most crowded epicenters. In the book, he describes a hike with other flight personnel in a park in South Africa, where it is “hot and dusty” and the “soil gusts up in crimson clouds with each step” while back in London, where they departed, it’s freezing. This constant flux of climate and geography and light, all within the span of just a few hours, and the sense of shock that comes with such adjustment, is what he and others in the field refer to as ‘place lag.’ According to Vanhoenacker, place lag doesn’t fade away, no matter how veteran the traveler. It’s non-combative, and also part of what makes his job so enjoyable. In this state of lag, making connections — human, geographic, ethereal, metaphysical — becomes both a science and an art.
“It’s amazing and interesting work. The plane is making connections between very different places,” he says. “There’s a social shake-up that happens with the crew, as well. I don’t have a fixed set of colleagues. I may never see some of these people again. It’s the same with the passengers. It’s so interesting to see new people and learn the kinds of jobs people have. Some are on the trip of a lifetime that they’ve saved their whole lives for.”
Off the ground, Vanhoenecker allows readers a mystical-toned glimpse into the world of flight. He writes about sky regions, a “new world, high above the old one, that is not yet fully charted,” the intricate and somehow beautiful guts of passenger planes, and the vastness of water and night. A whole world familiar yet unfamiliar, and at times incredibly solitary. But he is able to balance the solitude, and has found little pockets of acclimation — a bookstore in Beijing, sunset in Scandinavia, a shrine in Japan — that seem always to bring him back to the landing strip.
“I’m at home, standing sleepily by the sink,” he writes. “The water runs over the soles of my trainers, sweeping the African dust brightly over the stainless steel. I try hard to remember that this is an unusual experience of the world — to have stood on the earth there…then suddenly to find myself alone on an ordinary afternoon quietly washing it from my shoes.”
Mark Vanhoenacker reading and booksigning
Friday, June 19, 7 p.m.
11 Housatonic Street, Lenox, MA