One of the longest flights I’ve taken in my life was from London to Beijing several years ago. Flying over the vast mountains and tundra of northern Asia I was amazed how incredibly desolate it was. Looking at a blank space on a map can’t convey the hundreds of miles of inaccessible emptiness that exists when you glide over it at such a height. Flying has the potential to radically shift your spatial awareness of the world. Or it may just be an isolated amount of time to catch up on reading or watching movies. I find our relationship to flying fascinating and I once wrote an absurdist short story about passengers in an airplane watching people rise from the earth. You can listen to a recording of this story ‘Rise’ being read by the actor Matt Alford at Liars’ League NYC here. Although people have many different reactions to the experience of flying, few have given such a sustained and deeply sensitive amount of thought about it as pilot Mark Vanhoenacker has in his book “Skyfaring.” This is an extended meditation on the process of flying and the way it transforms our relationship to the world we inhabit.
Vanhoenacker has flown all over the planet having worked for around a dozen years as a commercial 747 airline pilot. In this book he combines his technical insight about the mechanics of flight with his poetic sensibility about his place in the world. He focuses on particular subjects such as 'machine', 'air', 'water' or 'night' by combining scientific knowledge with meditations upon his experiences in flight. He's like a modern Antoine de Saint-Exupery who I first read last year. Of course, Vanhoenacker references him as well as many other writers to support different points he makes or illuminate profoundly different ways of viewing the world. He draws upon a wide variety of literary sources from the poet Rumi to Emily Bronte to Joan Didion. The convergence of all these things in this book creates deep-feeling insights on the distance between the self and the world around us.
What's so engaging about “Skyfaring” is Vanhoenacker's beautiful style of writing which provokes deep contemplation. It exhibits both an authoritative understanding and a ceaseless wonder. Stories of his life-long journey towards becoming a pilot are combined with specific experiences he's had flying around the world. There is a curiosity and excitement he shows about the naming of places, the nature of clouds, the poignancy of anonymous encounters which is infectious and makes you want to read more. It also paints the world and skies he sees on his flights with such exquisite detail it helps you re-experience and re-view those times you spent looking out of a plane's window. This book is a deeply thoughtful and enjoyable read.