Mark Vanhoenacker, as the old adage suggests, writes what he knows: flying. Earlier this year, the British Airways pilot and contributor to The New York Times and Slate published his first book, Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot. More than your average “that’s my job” book, Skyfaring is both meditative and poetic, an exploration of history, literature, and science described by some reviewers as “richly ethereal” and “beautifully observed.”
During his downtime this past summer—following a flight from New York to London, and ahead of a trip between London and Accra, Ghana—Vanhoenacker, a onetime PhD candidate in East African history and former business consultant, spoke to me about his debut book, the mysterious pull of aviation, and the theme of flight, a subject that’s been explored by novelists, poets, feminists, and sci-fi fantasists.
The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Alex Nunes: Is flying something you always wanted to do?
Mark Vanhoenacker: It was. It was something that captured my imagination even as a kid. Whenever we flew when I was a child, I was tremendously excited by the journey rather than where we were going. I grew up in a small town in western Massachusetts, and we didn’t know any pilots, so it seemed about as likely a career as being an astronaut. It was after I took other paths that I found my way back to flying. It’s an interesting question. I wonder when people ask that if they’re talking not about me as an individual but about our species.
They’re interested in the primal instinct that would make someone want to fly?
Yeah. There’s some understanding that flying is an ancient dream of our species.
Have you ever seen anything up there that you cannot explain?
I suspect what some people mean when they ask that is have I seen any UFOs, and I haven’t seen anything like that. But again, I think that question reflects some atavistic notion of the sky and its mysteries, and we see plenty of things that are fodder for that. We see northern lights that go on for hours; we see the Milky Way, and it looks like an illuminated cloud; we see so many shooting stars that you forget, “Oh yeah, I’m supposed to wish.” We see something called St. Elmo’s fire [an emission of plasma associated with electric fields that causes what look like fingers of lightning to flicker on the windshield of the plane]. Even though we’ve identified explanations for these things, they reflect a wonder in the sky.
Do you remember your first flight?
I do remember my first flight as a passenger. We were going to Belgium when I was a small child. I was five or six. I remember being completely transfixed by the experience. The plane was as big as a building. To walk into a vessel that size that’s going to go up in the air is something that I found remarkable even then.
Your book has been very well received critically. What do you think draws people to this topic as well as your book in particular?
I think the book has its own built-in tailwind. The material is pretty rich. It’s not like I’m trying to convince people to like spiders or writing the definitive book about cockroaches. Many, many people also love flying, and in the past few years it’s become fashionable or routine to complain about it or take it for granted. But the fascination is below the surface, and it doesn’t really take much to remind people of what an amazing experience it is.
It seems like it’s more than just the average curiosity about what a certain occupation is like.
Yeah. I think children are a good guide to what we want to rediscover as adults, and kids are fascinated by flying. I see that onboard as well as in the terminal—I see kids taking pictures of the plane or just staring out the window. You look at a 747 parked at Heathrow: It weighs 380 tons, and it’s going to take you halfway around the planet. I think kids appreciate the scale of what makes airplanes possible.
You were in a PhD program in history at one point, and you worked in business consulting before going to flight school. You say in the book that you made the decision to become a pilot on a bus ride following a flight. What was your thought process like in that moment?
I had done a master’s, I had started a PhD, and I was studying East African history. I went to Kenya to start my research. I made my way to the archive, and I had this awareness that, in a way, what I’d been most looking forward to was the flight there. And I don’t mean that quite literally, but that was certainly a large aspect of it. So I decided there, after a few months, that the program wasn’t something I was going to finish, and that I should find something I felt passionate about. On the way back to London, I actually changed flights in the Middle East, and on the flight from Abu Dhabi to London, I went up to the cockpit, and I met the copilot and chatted with him for a while. We were over Istanbul, and he was saying, “This is the most amazing job in the world.” I was just really struck by the windows and the sense of the sky, and the machine itself moving through this vast ocean of air. When I landed in London, I was headed back to Cambridge on a bus, and I thought, “Why don’t I just give that a go?” I realized that I was going to need to save some money for flight training. I thought about jobs where I could fly a lot and ones that I was qualified to apply for, so I went into consulting for a few years, and then I applied to the British Airways program that I eventually completed.
There were several observations in your book that rang true to me that I’d not really articulated before. One is the idea of “place lag.” You say it’s the way our senses need time to adjust to the sometimes-radical changes between our places of departure and our destinations. I could see some people saying that’s one of the downsides to air travel. Why is it something you’re in awe of?
Place lag was the best term I could come up with for that feeling of flying across the world, landing in a new city, and suddenly just walking out into it. You’re confronted by this whole other world of languages and sounds and smells and architecture—all these things that, evolutionarily speaking, you have no right to travel to. We’re probably evolved to live and die within a few square miles of whatever environment we were raised in. To move beyond that in this way is almost the definition of globalization. To even be able to think of that possibility is perhaps the definition of modernity. I think it’s very analogous to what we call jet lag. I suspect there might even be a biological component to it: Jet lag is the physiological condition, and place lag may be more imaginative. I almost don’t even have an opinion on whether place lag is a good or bad thing, but it’s certainly an experience we can notice, and the way we experience it says a lot probably about us as a species and the age we live in.
In your book, you quote a number of writers who explored the subject of flight in their work: William Faulkner, Philip Levine, and Robert Frost are a few names. While doing research for this interview, I was surprised to see the variety of perspectives authors have taken on aviation. One article said that earlier in the history of flight the airplane was written of as a technological marvel, a feminist metaphor, a “tool for political hegemony,” a sci-fi fantasy, and a death trap. What is it about flight that you think captures the creative and intellectual imagination?
I think when flying first came about, it was something that was a new way of seeing the world. I quote several points from Out of Africa  by Isak Dinesen [the pen name of Danish author Baroness Karen Blixen-Finecke]. It’s not really a book about flying, but she’s clearly aware that the world is opening, that a dimension is being added to human experience. I think when that first happened, it was as striking to artists as it was to engineers. It was this new way of seeing ourselves and other places. Of course, very quickly, flying became a tool of the military. World War I was a major factor in the technological development of aviation, and that led to a whole other way of seeing flying. Then you can fast forward to the 1950s and ’60s, when it became a more mass-market mode of transportation. Then the 747 really opened up the world in the 1970s to the idea that a middle-class person could travel around the world. Some of the political writing on it, of course, comes from the sense that aviation was the original globalized industry. It was a cause of globalization as well as an effect of it.
It seems artists are often drawn to things that are mysterious. You said in the book that Georgia O’Keeffe was scared of flying but that she liked to watch airplanes make shapes in the sky. Do you agree that part of the attraction for artists is the strangeness to flying?
I think the strangeness of it was a big part of that early artistic wave—and some of the danger to it back then. Perhaps one of the reasons we’ve lost that sense of mystery is because aviation is so routine for so many people in an industrial society. Imaginatively, you could argue that flying is the victim of its own success. That leads to one of the reasons I wanted to write the book: It’s so easy for me, even as a pilot, to take this thing for granted. I have a globe at home; sometimes I have to force myself to actually look at it and to spin it around and say, “I’m going to be in Accra on Thursday. That’s pretty bananas.” It’s still a mind-blowing fact, but still it’s a fact we can take for granted.
I came across a couple of poems that talked irreverently about mundane aspects of flying, like airplane food or being trapped on a plane next to a loud talker. To me, they picked up on a surreal quality I’ve always felt when flying—close quarters, strangers, food in tiny, foil-covered dishes. Is that aspect of flying something you ever think about?
When I fly as a passenger—and a little bit as a pilot as well—I’m often struck by the kinds of circumstances that have brought people together onto one flight. Every flight is a mix of business people and tourists and immigrants and people going back to the countries they were born in that their ancestors came from. So you do have this sense of the tides of people that move across the world now. To me, that’s a wonderful insight into how people move across the planet and why they move across the planet. Sometimes that filtering effect is much more narrow. Sometimes, there’s a cardiology conference in Phoenix, and we’re flying from London to Phoenix, and everyone on the plane is a cardiologist. Yet, of course, all of them, when they go back to London, will connect to all over Europe and go back to their homes and never again be together in that way.
Being a writer and a pilot, do you see any similarities between the two professions?
I don’t see so many similarities. I really do like flying as a passenger. I love both reading and writing in the window seat of a plane. It’s a really meditative space. You can look up, and there’s always something to look at. Then you can go back into your own head. Writing is very solitary, and my job is social, so it was pleasurable to move between those worlds, to work on the book for a week and then just put it away.
I was thinking that maybe they both involved being curious about the world. But maybe what you’re saying is that brings you to flying, but the day-to-day job is different.
Well, one thing that I often think is that, even if you don’t like flying, if you are generally interested in the world, there are not many better professions. If you like going to cathedrals, you’re going to like flying, because you’re going to go to a lot of cities and visit a lot of cathedrals. If you like classical music, which I do, and you want to be able to go to the greatest concert halls in Europe and listen to great music, you might want to consider becoming a pilot. A lot of my colleagues have their own passions that they follow. Many of them are into photography. You get to travel to places that only the most advanced photographers in the world are being paid to go to.
If you were to write a second book about something other than flying, what would it be?
I don’t know. When I first started writing, I had some friends in the writing world, and they were saying, “Why don’t you just write about flying?” And I strongly resisted that. Very few of my articles that came out before the book have anything to do with flying or reference that I’m a pilot. I was really trying to get into writing without relying on the excellent material I had from work. In terms of other books, I have some ideas, but nothing firm yet. I grew up in western Massachusetts, and it’s just a wonderful area. One of the nice things about flying is that you come to appreciate home more when you leave it often. Every time I go back to western Massachusetts, I fall in love with it all over again, and there is a book to be written about the area in some way that I haven’t thought through carefully yet. But I’d be happy to do that.