I don’t like to sleep on planes. I don’t even like closing the window shade. I’d much rather watch the world go by and imagine what kinds of things people are up to down on the surface of the earth while I fly quietly above their heads. Flying has always felt otherwordly, fantastic in the old sense of the word. So when I picked up Mark Vanhoenacker’s book, Skyfaring, and read the first few pages, I knew I was in the company of a kindred spirit.
Vanhoenacker is a long-haul airline pilot who flies from London to the uttermost parts of the earth. Skyfaring is his poetic meditation on the wonders and oddities of flying. Listen to what he says in the first chapter (titled “Lift”).
Three questions come up most often, in language that hardly varies. Is flying something I have always wanted to do? Have I ever seen anything ‘up there’ that I cannot explain? And do I remember my first flight? I like these questions. They seem to have arrived, entirely intact, from a time before flying became ordinary and routine. They suggest that even now, when many of us so regularly leave one place on the earth and cross the high blue to another, we are not nearly as accustomed to flying as we think.”
From that starting point, Vanhoenacker explores miraculous facets of flying from a variety of perspectives. Each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of airplanes and air travel, covering everything from the mysterious to the mechanical. He tells us about weather, water systems, continents, cardinal directions, time, space, language, and what it feels like to steer an aircraft with hundreds of passengers (or “souls”) on board. If you’re ever tempted to think that technology and spirituality are at odds, this book will fix that once and for all.
For me, reading this book was like re-opening a journal I had written in but never read. The sensations he describes (mostly, the excitement of flying) are sensations I know well. The feeling of the air lifting the plane as it barrels down the runway. Looking down at your hometown from thousands of feet in the air. The paradox of knowing that there is nothing below the floor but clouds and miles of empty space. GK Chesterton describes the man who leaves his country only to return and find that everything that used to be rote and familiar is new and exciting once again. That’s the experience of air travel. Skyfaring captures that feeling all too well.
Flight is the cartographic, planetary equivalent of hearing a song covered by a singer you love, or meeting for the first time a relative whose features or mannerisms are already familiar. We know the song but not like this; we have never met this person and yet we have never in our lives been strangers. Airplanes raise us above the patterns of streets, forests, suburbs, schools, and rivers. The ordinary things we thought we knew become new or more beautiful, and the visible relationships between them on the land, particularly at night, hint at the circuitry of more or less everything.”
If there’s one thing I didn’t like about Skyfaring, it was that I read it too quickly. The middle chapters are full of fascinating descriptions of how planes and air travel work. Sometimes, the level of detail (all very poetically written) was too much to digest at once. Take breaks between chapters, or you might come away feeling overstuffed.
If you ever suffer from wanderlust, or if you’ve ever entertained thoughts of becoming a pilot, you probably shouldn’t read this book. But if you decide to risk it, you’re in for a thrilling ride. And you may end up lying in your bed at night with the lights out, eyes closed, skimming over the surface of the world in your sleep.