Airline pilot Mark Vanhoenacker on what it's like to be a 747 jumbo pilot

Mark Vanhoenacker's new book, Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot, isn't exactly a memoir. It's a meditation on flying, on the physical act of soaring through the air in a giant metal tube, and on the foreign-to-most experiences of the pilot behind the yoke.

"I am occasionally asked if I don't find it boring, to be in the cockpit for so many hours," he writes. "But I've never had the sense that there was any more enjoyable way to spend my working life, that below me existed some other kind of time for which I would trade my hours in the sky."

Flying is a very old dream of our species, and when we look out at a 747 waiting to take us halfway across the world, we're looking at a dream come true.

Mark Vanhoenacker

To try to understand that level of passion, I met Vanhoenacker (who has written for The New York Times) at Kennedy Airport, where we talked, first in a terminal waiting area, then in the cockpit of one of the British Airways 747s that he flies. We spoke about the book, the differences between being a pilot and a passenger, and what we've lost as flying has become a routine part of many of our lives. Here are excerpts from that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

In the book, you talk about something that I think passengers will intuitively understand, which is the idea of place lag. Not jet lag, not based on circadian rhythms, but disorientation based on location.

MARK VANHOENACKER: Well, place lag is the best term I could come up with for that bewilderment, which is something a lot more than culture shock or jet lag. It's something that pilots or aircrews experience more extremely than anybody else. Let's say you start in North London and you get on the Tube and take the train out, and then you end up on a flight for 12 hours, and suddenly you're making an approach into Singapore. It's the next afternoon and you left London late at night and now it's midafternoon and these great towers of clouds are rising off the Strait of Singapore and you look down and think, "This is just a whole other world." Then you land and go through customs and immigration and suddenly you're on a bus and off-duty for the first time in 16 hours.

You look around, and all around you it's just a regular afternoon. People are sitting in their cars and their houses and listening to the radio, listening to news programs about events and people that are as foreign as any could be to us, and yet airplanes connect us in that way. Airplanes make that kind of motion possible. I think we probably evolved as a species to be born, to live and to die within a few dozen square miles of forest or savanna.

We will simply never be accustomed to that kind of change of place. I think in a way it's a good thing. It's kind of the wonder of travel and it's something that I have not become more accustomed to. It only gets more wondrous to me, really.

It sounds to me, to a certain degree, that the ability to deal with it is almost a constitutional thing. I find it not only disconcerting but stressful. I've learned over the years, travelling, that I more or less never enjoy a place the first day that I'm there. I just can't. That feeling of disconnection feels overwhelming to me. It sounds as if you have a more positive take on it than I do. I wonder if you feel like that's because you're a pilot or it's one of the things that helped you become a pilot.

MV: I was always really fascinated with the imaginative journeys that planes make. I talk in the book about coming here to JFK when I was a kid to pick up relatives who were flying from Belgium. We were on the top of the old Pan Am building, and I watched a plane come in from Saudi Arabia, and it had the palm tree and the swords and the Arabic text on the tail or on the fuselage. I remember just being blown away at the thought that that plane had started its day in Dammam or Riyadh or Jeddah. That it had made this kind of journey. So I was always really drawn to that sense that planes give us, that the whole world is going on at once. That planes can transport us in a way that really nothing else can.

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It's also very easy to forget how new it is. It feels like such a part of our everyday lives and so integral to people's professional lives and family lives. Yet it has really only existed, on a mass scale at least, for, what, 50 years?

MV: Yeah, and I think that ties into the sense that I almost wonder if the sort of dream of flight doesn't perhaps have its own biological origins. Kids are so obsessed with the sight of airplanes and even on the ground, like at Heathrow, at Terminal 5, there are these big floor-to-ceiling windows there and you often see kids just lined up there. You see people taking selfies too now. People often ask me if flying was something I always wanted to do. I really like that question because I wonder if people are asking not about me as an individual but if they're kind of referring to the species.

(After a walk-around, in which the pilot visually inspects the exterior of the plane, we headed up to the cockpit. It felt smaller than I had expected.)

Does this ever feel claustrophobic to you?

MV: No, this is a large flight deck, actually, compared to other flight decks. We've got our bedroom there - it's like being inside a tent. It's got a bathroom. It's what we often call the en-suite suite.

But your visibility is limited in some ways. You obviously can't see most of the plane from here.

MV: You develop this sense of the length of the plane and the width of it. Often, an aircraft controller will say, "Plane vacating the runway." One of the things you learn when you're training is that when we in the cockpit have left the runway, there's 200 feet of plane behind us that is still on it. So you develop this whole kind of awareness.

Looking out of the windshield, everything looks so narrow and distorted to me. Is that something that just goes away when you're in the air?

MV: Because most of the time we're looking at something that's ahead of us, almost always really, and the scale of the outside world means that these don't feel small at all once you're moving. Again, we're very conscious that what you cannot see is what's underneath you. Or even what's just ahead of you.

You wrote in the book about how pilots will say the sunsets that you see from a cockpit would qualify as the best sunsets you've ever seen from the ground - but you're seeing them constantly. And there are scenarios where you would not just see one long sunset but actually multiple sunsets.

MV: Yeah. When you fly from London to Tokyo, you go into the Arctic and it's a night flight. You leave London in the afternoon and you get to Tokyo in the morning. So it's a night flight. But the sun never goes down because in those higher latitudes it doesn't go down at all during the summer. So you fly into that area where it's continuous sunlight, and by the time you're flying out of that area, it's morning where you are. But sometimes you turn south a bit and the sun will set. Then when you climb, you get higher - just a few thousand feet can make the sun rise again because you're still getting that higher vantage point over the top of the Earth. And so, you can get three or four in the flight. It really makes you question what exactly is a day. It's sunrise to sunset, or is it?

Something else you write about is the sealed-off quality of flying in general, at least modern flying, going from one sealed place to another sealed place. Is that felt more intensely as a pilot, or less?

MV: For pilots, it's more intense because the air is the basis of so many of our calculations. The whole flight is based on calculations. Air is the medium and we're dealing with it in so many technical ways. So where there are breaks in that cocoon-ness, like where the jetway bridge meets the plane, we often get this blast of heat, as we did today getting off the 747, or Chicago cold. To me, it's kind of this nice reminder of what it is we're actually moving through. Often, you get a smell of the city. In Boston, you can really smell the harbor sometimes. Even before you land sometimes you can get a little bit of a smell of salt in the air.

And I guess doing the walk-around breaks that as well.

MV: Sure. Nobody likes getting wet, but I really love doing the walk-around when it's really terrible, heavy rain or snow and strong winds. Then you come back into the cockpit and it's warm and dry. And you know that you're accounting for all the weather you just walked through, and it changes your calculations that cover the takeoff and various other things. The airplane is moving in an alien environment at high altitude, of course. In terms of the temperature and the air pressure, it's alien to us. To get that sense of the vessel when you're still on the ground is quite lovely.

There's a serene quality to the book, which is perhaps just your style of writing. But I also wonder whether, in a way, flying can be more stressful for the passenger than the pilot. As you write in the book, you're going 600 miles per hour, yet it's steadier than a car on grass.

MV: Also, we have an understanding of the degree to which the planes are engineered. We know turbulence can be uncomfortable but it's never dangerous. We can see the altitude and the speed. We have this large view ahead. We may know that there's turbulence coming from an aircraft ahead of us or because it's been forecast.

I wonder whether flying can ever become routine for a pilot when you're constantly reminded of that alien environment and you're constantly reminded of the views.

MV: One of the reasons I wrote the book was to remind myself how amazing it is, the extraordinary things that we do all the time that become ordinary. When you see the Northern Lights for three hours a night a week, or see the sun setting on the Alps, or fly over Istanbul and see the gold glitter in morning light, how can you be amazed by that all the time?

I've gotten some emails from colleagues who've read the book and were happy to re-encounter that enthusiasm. Flying is a wonder for everyone. Kids are always a good reminder of what we should try to rediscover or shouldn't get used to. Kids are amazed by airplanes.

I've flown as a passenger in places like Brazil - domestic flights between secondary cities. And everyone is looking out the windows. Even in the middle seats, people are trying to look out of the window. Maybe that's just because Brazil is a really beautiful country from the air. But I often wonder if it's because, in these countries that have rapidly developed a middle class, flying still seems like a new experience for a lot of people.

I've never flown domestically in China; I've only flown to and from it on long-haul flights. But it wouldn't surprise me at all if the same thing was happening there. You don't realise how big China is until you fly over it from London and spend three or four hours over it on your way to Beijing or Hong Kong. Countries like that will be revolutionised the same way the US has been.

If you had to pinpoint what you feel as a pilot that you can convey to an average passenger, that they either take for granted or don't know about the experience of flying, what would that be?

MV: I guess the sense that I was trying to capture in the book is the one I had as a child. I can't think of an easier thing to find a sort of basic human joy in. It's really quite a spiritual experience, and it's also this amazing technological achievement. A lot of pilots have those things as the two halves of their personalities. They have a romantic sensibility about the world but are also amazed by science and technology.

Flying is a very old dream of our species, and when we look out at a 747 waiting to take us halfway across the world, we're looking at a dream come true. It maybe doesn't feel like that because we do it so often now, but planes are literally a dream that's come true.

The New York Times

See also: Twelve things you do that flight attendants hate
See also: Flight test: British Airways economy class

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