Magazine article The Spectator

'Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot', by Mark Vanhoenacker - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot', by Mark Vanhoenacker - Review

Article excerpt

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot Mark Vanhoenacker

Chatto, pp.352, £16.99, ISBN: 9780701188665

With Alpine wreckage still being sifted, this is either a very good or a very bad time to write about the mystery and beauty of aviation. I am a nervous flyer, always imagining the worst will happen, so when I hear that 'the captain has turned off the seat-belt sign' I feel a jolt of relief. Even more so when, halfway through the trip, the captain himself speaks to the passengers in a voice whose mellifluous calculation is as precise as the in-flight computers. You would always want the voice of the pilot to be Mark Vanhoenacker's.

He is an unusual hybrid: a BA 747 pilot and, now, an author of real distinction with a genuinely poetic sensibility as well as a memorable turn of phrase. Although flight is the greatest modern adventure, it has been poorly served by literature. Writers, evidently, prefer grubby divorces in the suburbs to the majesty of aviation as a context for a discussion of human folly and ingenuity. There was the man-boy Saint-Exupéry, of course. Let's not forget Biggles. And before Vanhoenacker there was Guy Murchie, whose Song of the Sky (1954) was the most eloquent and engaged account of what it takes to get into the air and what happens when you are up there.

Vanhoenacker has found a perfect voice for a glorious subject. He calls it Skyfaring because he is keenly aware of maritime parallels. Indeed, the aircraft industry speaks of ships, hulls and rudders. He's aware too of metaphors: 'pilot' itself being, since Aeneas's Palinurus, one of the most resonant.

This pilot's voice has gentle authority, calm assurance, a persistent, but not unpleasant, didacticism and a very nice sense of telling details. And all of this is informed by Vanhoenacker's own privileged access plus a sense of wonder, refreshed daily, about how boggling it is that 380 tons of aluminium, titanium, steel, glass, rubber and duty-free can keep the population of a village aloft at seven miles above the ground while moving close to the speed of sound.

Now that so much of flying has become a sordid and humiliating ordeal, it is good to have an elegant corrective which restores some of its original romance. …

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