Sunday, 2 August 2015

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.  

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Review by Ian Bald

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