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.  


Hardback 

Kindle 

Review by Ian Bald

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Jim Baggott - Four Way Interview

Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He trained as a scientist, completing a doctorate in physical chemistry at Oxford in the early 80s, before embarking on post-doctoral research studies at Oxford and at Stanford University in California. He gave up a tenured lectureship at the University of Reading after five years in order to gain experience in the commercial world. He worked for Shell International Petroleum for 11 years before leaving to establish his own business consultancy and training practice. He writes about science, science history and philosophy in what spare time he can find. His books include Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb (2009), Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ (2012), Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields (2017), and, most recently, Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe (2018). For more info see: www…

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…