Skip to main content

Skyfaring - Mark Vanhoenacker ***

Skyfaring is, strictly speaking, not a popular science book. It is first and foremost a memoir by a current British Airways 747 pilot. However, the author does include passages that concern the engineering of aircraft, the mechanics and physics of flight, and a great deal about meteorology.

At the outset it should be noted that Mark Vanhoenacker is an excellent writer. He has a real gift of language and of description and detail. The book contains a number of stirring passages about the wonder, glory and romanticism of flying and travel. Interspersed with these passages are interesting insights about how it is to live as a pilot flying long intercontinental flights. He also provides a rare glimpse of air travel from the perspective of the cockpit. Vanhoenacker is also very adept at weaving stories from his childhood and international upbringing to give colour and flavour to how he came to be a pilot and why he loves his occupation as he does. 

Despite his obvious writing ability, there are some problems with the book. One is that it feels a bit too long. As adept as Vanhoenacker is as a writer, the book would have benefited from a heavier hand during the editing process. There are a number of passages that could be slimmed down or removed as they touch upon the same subject, for instance the confusion of waking up in different cities around the globe and the nomadic lifestyle of the modern commercial pilot, that are not dissimilar enough to warrant page space. Somehow the book gives the impression that the editor was either too polite or inexperienced to wield the red pen as it should have been. A tighter narrative would have been welcome. 

The science and engineering aspects of the book are interesting, even for the reader that knows a lot about flying and aircraft. The intricacies of sitting in the cockpit and of flying as described by Vanhoenacker definitely dispel the idea that anyone could land a modern airliner simply by autopilot if the crew were incapacitated. 

As someone who has previously worked as an aircraft technician and who has an abiding interest in aircraft and air travel, the book gave me a number of insights about the practical nature of the pilot’s job and the skill required to fly large commercial airliners. Furthermore, Vanhoenacker’s writing and obvious devotion to his occupation were a joy to read. Full marks cannot be given though due to the slight repetitiveness in the book, and long passages that could have been tightened up. 

If you have an interest in modern commercial aircraft, airlines and travel, this book is worth taking on your next journey.  



Review by Ian Bald


Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each w…

David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting t…