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. A recurrent theme is the strangeness of it all and how, at altitude, nothing is quite what it seems. Airborne, the earthbound laws of physics no longer quite apply. North turns to south, night becomes day while time and space are compacted this way and extended the next. Air, Vanhoenacker insists, is not ethereal nothingness, but a weighty gaseous soup which his aircraft manipulates and penetrates. We learn about winds, clouds and charts: ‘maps of transience and air’.
Did you know that Indicated Air Speed, True Air Speed and Ground Speed are all different? Did you know that pressure altimeters are always being re-set because pressure varies? Flight Level 35 is not always 35,000 feet; nervous fliers may wish to rehearse their anxiety about whether the flight crew have corrected their instruments to cold weather conditions vis-à-vis mountains expected en route. Then there is the radio altimeter which is so sensitive that its calculations account for the time electrons take to travel through a 747-400’s 274 kilometres of wiring.
But Skyfaring is not nerdy techno-porn. It is compulsive for the same reasons flight itself is compulsive: here is territory where the technical quickly blurs into the mystical. As he twiddles with the knobs on the ample abbreviations and acronyms in his cockpit, the GPWS (Ground Proximity Warning System) or the CAS (Collision Avoidance System), he takes a long, slow, left-hand turn into poetry. And sometimes into amusing bathos: ‘I saw the lights of all Baghdad pass by in the night, and then I ate a sandwich.’
Most of modern flight is automated, true. But I have actually done several hours on a 747 simulator and can testify that it’s wringingly exhausting both physically and intellectually. Most demanding of all is the awful responsibility: apart from officers in combat, no one holds so much life and death in the balance as a commercial airline pilot.
Dislocation and globalisation, epidemics and pollution are effects of flight. But so too are the beauty, poetry and mystery which are Vanhoenacker’s subject. As soon as the pilot says ‘Gear up!’, you enter a higher form of unreality. This really is a very good book.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £14.99 Tel: 08430 600033