At its core, Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot is a book about engineering as art. It is a poem about the human desire to connect and be somewhere, anywhere, nowhere. For its author, commercial pilot Mark Vanhoenacker, it is about a lifelong romance with flying, soaring above the terra firma, looking down on a planet that is a spiderweb of beacons, invisible routes, trails and boundaries that hardly mirror the states below.
Skyfaring is a great summer read: If, like me, you are traveling, it makes you understand planes, airports and our desires to experience the known and unknown. It is a memoir, but it is also a handy guide to the artistry and nuance of those contrails seen in the early hours of the morning.
It is a pilot’s view of the flying experience, which is different from passengers’ perspectives, those of us sealed in the metal tube predictably complaining on Twitter about long delays, short-tempered staff and lost bags. Rarely do we think about the marvel that is the plane, or the functional chaos that is the airport. And rarer still do we think of the pilot, who only creeps into our consciousness via dulcet tones announcing our departure, the weather or our imminent arrival. We have lost our sense of wonder about this miracle of flying. How is breakfast in Paris and dinner on a beach in the Caribbean all in the same day not magical?
Skyfaring is Mark Vanhoenacker’s effort to inject wonder back into our flying experience. For some unexpected reason, Mark sent me a copy—he somehow knew I was a traveler. It was signed with a very personal note. I was pleasantly surprised, and I vowed to read the book next time I was on a plane. I bought a Kindle version, mostly to support a fellow writer, and queued my favorite songs for reading on my aging iPod shuffle. I was set. I read it on my way to Paris and then on my way to the Virgin Islands and then on my way home. I finished it in about 13,000 miles, aboard two different Airbus models, two different Boeings, a Cessna turboprop and a Piper prop plane. Alas, none of the reading occurred in a 747, the plane Mark flies.
[quote] Some paragraphs are so achingly beautiful and articulate that I found myself moved to a state between elation and tears[/quote] I read it over my country. I read it over the Atlantic Ocean, twice. And the Caribbean Sea. I saved the ending for last night, timed to my journey’s end. So what do I think? It just might be the best book I have read so far this year. Mark writes like a poet. Some paragraphs are so achingly beautiful and articulate that I found myself moved to a state between elation and tears. The book made me feel light, flying high over the planet, as if I was riding an invisible magic carpet.
As an author, Mark delivers on all fronts: Skyfaring is factual, fantastical and fascinating. Every page shimmers with the author’s love for planes and flying. He makes complex and arcane topics understandable by using life—sometimes his life—as an analogy. When I fly with my friends who are recreational pilots, I sense elation on their faces, a communion with the heavens above and the machine in front of them. Mark has managed to capture that in words, and put it on the page. The loving, languid manner in which he describes a pre-flight walk around a 747 will forever make me think of the beast of a plane differently.
The insider pilot and aviation stuff makes this book an interesting read, especially to a frequent traveler. And the ease and grace with which Mark blends science, art, and his childhood memories—well, he might have just set a high water (or altitude) mark. If I ever write a memoir, they will need to tackle a similar checklist of emotions, facts, technology, and curvaceous turns of phrase. Mark has thrown a wonderful gauntlet. If a book’s job is to change a reader’s perspective and allow them to begin to think differently about the world, then Skyfaring has done its job. I now know how a plane works — and yet I will never know how it does.