Thinking at 36,000 Feet

Review: Mark Vanhoenacker, 'Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot'

BY:

Chesterton wrote somewhere that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder, with thanks "the highest form of thought." As strange as it may sound at first blush, he was saying that gratitude is an activity of the intellect as much as an emotional response.

I’ve not read Chesterton in a decade, but I have just read Mark Vanhoenacker, the pilot-scribe whose award-winning book, Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot, has me reconsidering whether Chesterton's line isn't just a Hallmark sentiment but the truth about the marriage of thought and thanks.

I finished reading Skyfaring from a window seat just behind the wings of a new Boeing 737-900ER. Vanhoenacker recommends this spot on planes because of its perspective. The allure of this seat is its view of the silent signing of the wing in flight. It mesmerizes; the intermittent movements of ailerons, spoilers, flaps, and slats are proof of mankind's ingenuity in dealing with nature. Here is choreography of a half-hidden kind, evidence of a language at once more and less than human.

Vanhoenacker is a commercial pilot in an industry that seems more interested in maximizing its bottom line than being thoughtful to its passengers. His maiden literary effort, however, is as much an uncovering of the surprisingly poetic rituals of flight as it is a chronicle of how human beings use machines to travel. Vanhoenacker's gods-eye view from the cockpit gives him the perspective for his geo-graphing, or "writing of the world."

"…[I]n flight, we leave behind the small concerns and low ceilings of daily life," writes Vanhoenacker, a sentiment expressed before by the pilot-poets who pioneered aviation in the first decades of the twentieth century. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote that he flew to release his mind "from the tyranny of petty things"; perhaps that is why, besides his French birthright of existential angst, his writings heave with anguish at the clash between the grandeur of the earth he surveys from above and the ugliness of shortsighted human selfishness below. Vanhoenacker has a lighter touch. His voice is serene. He loves his job. And he is in pleased wonderment that he earns his paycheck in a way that teaches him every day. Through his job, he constantly relearns the world.

His greatest or most deeply felt lesson has been about home. Referencing a variety of well-known poets (Stuart Little, too), Vanhoenacker writes that home "is the simplicity of ordinary things, rather than the shock of difference," the place to moor the physical body and reacquaint it with time and soil, in order for the soul to recover from "place lag." "It hardly matters where we go, only that we've been away." Though grudgingly, even Odysseus would have to agree.

Thus Vanhoenacker speaks of the "deepening gratitude" for home that flying has given him. His present home is London, and his Heathrow take-offs and landings are the starting point of many an anecdote, aviation explanation, and intellectual journey. The reader learns that pilots have a particular language they use, "aeroese," to communicate with an international host of air controllers, radio operators, and fellow pilots; even with their plane. You learn about the division of the sky into regions, with real borders and names tied to their history like terrestrial countries, but broader—Amazonica over South America; Maastricht over Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and northeast Germany; Samarkand, the great city mentioned by Marco Polo and conquered by Alexander the Great. The reader learns also about the beacons and waypoints pilots use to plot their routes and chart their course.

Waypoints might be my favorite discovery in Skyfaring. Waypoints are defined by geographic coordinates and a name, usually a five-letter capitalized word. They are "the sky’s audible currency of place," proof positive of the humans' proclivity to name things—and of our sense of humor. Around the Tasman Sea are WALZT, INGMA, and TILDA ("Waltzing Matilda" is Australia's unofficial anthem). Near the English Channel is DRAKE, while TULIP floats off the Dutch coast. SNUPY is near the Sonoma County airport named after Charles Schulz. BARBQ, SMOKE, and RIBBS appear near Kansas City; STRKK and OUTTT near Boston.

Creativity, even whimsy, is the unexpected gift that the world of flight revealed to the author, and that he shares with his reader. I did not think I would find a defense of the liberal arts in a book about flight, but Vanhoenacker writes about how he discovered the art in a field dominated by numbers and machines.

… [W]e have neglected the creativity that makes our technology possible. I certainly had. When I returned to the classroom I held the simplistic view that academia, and perhaps much of the thinking and working of the world, was neatly divided. There were so called creative or soft fields, those whose practitioners try to work outside the box, or to think about the biases of a box, who talk about why boxes are important or beautiful, and the history of boxes, and why some boxes hate other boxes and how boxes are depicted in the arts. Then there were the hard professions—those whose acolytes are devoted to the evolution of boxes, to their chemistry or mathematics, or to the design and construction of more reliable ones.

Never in my life has a view that I held been overturned as cleanly and quickly as this one … I was struck by the extraordinary creativity of engineering, by the art of flying: how connections are made between substances or disciplines, how an effect in a system is conjured as carefully as that of a story, a poem, a song. And engineers are confined by a frame of physical laws and … a web of physical restraints … that might make a composer of haikus blanch.

Surrounded by so much that is remarkable in his day job, Vanhoenacker runs the risk of dismissing it because it is common. His solution was to share his pilot's journey in a book, because in the process of writing about the world from the cockpit he is arrested by wonder of that world.

Wonder feeds on and fuels contemplation. That is why, as I watched the wing's components sequence ("dirtying up," as the pilots say) and the landing gear unfurl as we made our descent, I thought that Chesterton rather hit on something in his characterization of gratitude as an intellectual activity.

Rebecca Burgess

Rebecca Burgess   Email Rebecca | Full Bio | RSS
Rebecca Burgess manages the Program on American Citizenship at the American Enterprise Institute. Prior to joining AEI, Rebecca served as the director of programs for External Affairs at Hillsdale College, where she was also deputy editor of Imprimis. She has taught courses on American political theory and constitutional principles at both Hillsdale College and the University of Dallas.

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