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'Skyfaring': The Poetry And Science Of Air Travel

Storms over the Bay of Bengal.
Storms over the Bay of Bengal.

In an episode of the Netflix program Sense8, the character Capheus suddenly finds himself an aircraft passenger alongside Riley, another "sensate" to whom he is mysteriously connected emotionally. Flying from London to Reykjavik, Riley is bored, her eyes dulled even as spectacular white clouds drift past her window. Capheus, who lives in Nairobi and has never before traveled by air, is thunderstruck by Riley's refusal to grasp how lucky she is to be dwelling in these skies.

With fresh eyes, Capheus sees on that flight what Riley cannot.

For people who fly with some regularity, it becomes all too easy to assume an indifference of Riley's sort without even realizing it. We celebrate our arrival in a new city but endure the flight itself, steeped in what we tell ourselves are great inconveniences (Cramped economy seats! Too many food-less hours in the air!)

Flying, though, continuously enlivens London-based long-haul pilot Mark Vanhoenacker's perception, and his delight, just as it did for Capheus. Through the nine chapters of his non-fiction book Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot, Vanhoenacker invites his readers to rediscover the excitement of flight, and what we may drink in of our Earth and its day and night skies as we fly.

"In the old days," Vanhoenacker writes, "globes were made and given in pairs, a terrestrial, or earth globe, and a celestial sphere of the heavens. At night from a plane we may see ourselves as we are: sandwiched between the celestial and the terrestrial spheres, the icy ball of stars turning frictionlessly over us, a high mirror to the steady roll of the dark lands and waters and the lights of cities."

Passages like these, including vivid descriptions of what it's like to fly through the "sky countries" — administrative divisions of airspace with names like Fukuoka and Maastricht and Turkmenabat — caused me to fall in love with Skyfaring's marriage of poetry and science. And I include anthropology in that "science." It's not just skies and terrain that Vanhoenacker describes, but also movements and migrations of people across the globe, people who, thanks to worldwide inequities, may come from widely divergent circumstances.

I connected with Vanhoenacker first on Twitter. When he kindly agreed to answer some questions for this post, we corresponded via email. What appears here are excerpts from a longer conversation.

The 747 aircraft, and all the dynamic forces acting upon it in the air and on the ground, comes alive in your book. It's evident that it takes a great deal of scientific training to pilot safely this 380-ton airplane on long-haul flights. Do you ever think of yourself explicitly as a scientist as you work in the cockpit?

I don't ever quite feel like a scientist in the cockpit. But I feel that if you have an interest in science you could do a lot worse than to become a pilot. It's a job in which you'll interact with a great variety of realms of knowledge — about the atmosphere, weather, astronomy, basic physics, math, just to start — in a quite direct and pleasingly practical way. You learn about these things in your initial training. Then you interact with them, or with the solutions that have been designed around them, every hour of your working life. I feel very clearly that pilots are standing on the shoulders of giants of both science and engineering, and that's both a privilege and an ongoing fascination for me.

As I write in Skyfaring, when I started my flight training I was flabbergasted by the creativity I saw in a field that I had rather naively assumed was based only on rigorous but very direct application of scientific facts. I quickly saw in engineering the importance of an almost poetic level of creativity, and that's been one of the pleasures of the job. I tried to write as clearly as I could about several realms of aeronautical engineering that strike me as particularly wondrous examples of human ingenuity — inertial reference systems, for example, which help us navigate in part without reference to the outside world — much cooler in my opinion than GPS, which relies on a line of sight to satellites, of course.

Skyfaring strikes me as anthropological, in two senses. You write, "We evolved slowly to move over the world, in sight of everything en route," and frequently throughout the book compare the modern experience of flying around the globe to our ancestors' lives in prehistory. Might an evolutionary perspective add to our enjoyment of flying?

I love to think about the long view of human history, especially when it comes to the role of technology. Flight is unnatural to us, in the simplest sense: We don't have wings. Yet we've transcended so many of our other physical limitations — we can see farther with optics, we can live longer with modern medicine, we can speak farther with telecommunications. Flight, of course, is one of our oldest dreams, and so in a broader sense it's the most natural thing in the world for us to have learned to do.

I read once that when Google Earth was rolled out, the vast majority of people zoomed over their own homes, rather than new places on the far side of the world. What Google Earth offered us is a kind of flight, and why is that view of home so fascinating to us? Is it because it helps us understand the narrative of our own lives? Is it simply that we find it pleasing to see things we already know fit together, the evolutionarily driven pleasure of making connections? Or is it far more basic — a sudden gift of sight of the geography that in millennia past, we would fight or hunt on?

Airplanes do more than take us up, of course. They also take us over, or around, our home planet. Evolution explains jet lag — unlike airliners we are not "made" to casually vault between far-flung time zones and, so, it's a shock to the system. But evolution, perhaps, also explains what I call place lag, the shock of arriving in a place so different from the one we grew up to know. In the old days, computer monitors could get image burn-in (hence screen savers) and I often feel that the sights, sounds and smells of home are baked into our outlook so fundamentally that we can hardly perceive it. When I land in Singapore or Johannesburg or São Paulo, I feel that some part of me is always comparing it to the towns or landscape of western Massachusetts where I grew up, and I can't help but marvel.

The other sense in which the book resonates for me anthropologically is your writing about humanity's patterns of movement and flow, of the world's cities seen as lit up brightly or mostly shrouded in dark from the air, of these "pictures of inequity" visible from an 747-eye's view. You write of the "deep axes of empires, migration, and the whole of human geography" that you see. Do you think your academic studies in African history may make you particularly attuned to these realities?

I think my academic interests, particularly in African history, gave me an awareness of the historical background of many of the places I fly to (and over). But of course, it's an illusion to read too much into the view from 35,000 feet. This is something I wanted to express very strongly in the book — that the view from above is almost always beautiful but it has its limitations.

For example, I fly over Kinshasa regularly en route from London to Cape Town. Congo is a country I think about a lot, because my father lived there in the 1950s when it was a colony of Belgium. Kinshasa is an enormous city but its scale is not at all clear from the light that shines up from it. To know what you are seeing, you have to know it is a city of many, many millions; you have to know that there is not nearly enough electricity there for everyone who needs it; and you have to know that the skies above such equatorial cities are often very humid, and so that much of the light that does rise is diffused.

Even when we have such background knowledge, we have to be very careful about the conclusions we draw from above. Toward the end of the book, I talk about what it means to "fly a place," a phrase that John McPhee encounters in Alaska, where aviation is critically important and where, he writes, people may say that they have "flown a place" to describe somewhere they have seen from the sky but not from the ground. There are cities, like Moscow, that I've flown to many times but I've never left the airport. Or Mongolia — I've flown it many times en route to Beijing but I've never been less than five miles above it. What do I know of such places? A great deal, from one perspective; almost nothing, from another.

By the way, I think this question is something that many air crews are acutely aware of. There are charities around the world where crews will volunteer, either with their downtime on trips or by carrying donations out with them and delivering them in person. At Heathrow, we have a room where anyone in the airline can leave clothing or supplies that will be carried out in person by crews on the next flight. It's hard to imagine a more fitting contrast to the view from 35,000 feet — and of course it's airplanes that make not only that view but also the human connection at the end of the flight possible.

Your sense of wonder and delight during long-haul flying is intact after many years. Do you think it's harder for passengers nowadays (with our "sometimes-weary casualness" about flying as you put it) to capture or recapture some version of this delight, given the stresses associated with modern-day passengerhood? Any advice in this context for those of us back in the crowded economy cabins?

My friends always laugh at me when I fly as a passenger, because I always ask for a window seat. But just as you might sit in a café and watch the world go by, in the window of an airplane seat you can listen to music, read a book, chat to a friend, while the planet itself rolls past. I'd advise passengers to save some much-anticipated podcasts or magazine articles for their next flight, and try to enjoy a few hours high above our beautiful world, from an altitude at which you can't make out traffic, tax returns or laundry.

I'm also a big fan of apps like Wiki Offline, which allow you access to all the text of Wikipedia (but not the photos) even when your phone is in airplane mode. I love to sit in the passenger seat and look at the moving map and put in random search terms that relate to the world below — "glaciers" or "cirrus" or "dam" or "Tulsa." It's a particularly literal form of browsing, of exploring — what better name? — the World Wide Web.

Vanhoenacker writes in the book, "The air you exhale on the plane, the plane exhales, too. Your breath trails across the world."

Travel links us all. For those of us fortunate enough to travel by air, Skyfaring reawakens our wonder.

Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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