A FEAR OF FLYING coupled with a longstanding appreciation for travel means that I have a low-level obsession with airplanes. Some people pop Xanax before takeoff, some ritualistically touch the side of the plane before getting on, some hold hands with strangers during turbulence, and I read books like Mark Vanhoenacker's Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot.
If you're afraid of something, amassing knowledge about it can be an awful idea. But when I'm riding inside a pressurized metal tube IN THE SKY, it's the mystery of what's happening behind the cockpit door more than anything else that triggers my purest, most Sartre-y existential dread. So an easy and obvious fix is to dispel the mystery.
That's how I became obsessed with the Boeing 737 (seriously, just an excellent plane), it's how I learned how to MacGyver a crude turbulence gauge using a tray table and a cup of water, and it's why Vanhoenacker's book should be considered a public service for the jittery masses about to board the next flight out of PDX. In Skyfaring, Vanhoenacker demystifies flying without making it seem any less miraculous, delivering complex technical information in economical, considered prose. His voice is open and friendly—exactly what you want when you're delving into the facts of air travel. Some of the knowledge he imparts is goofy—as when he divulges that the five-letter names of aerial markers (known to pilots as "waypoints") around Kansas City are BARBQ, SPICY, SMOKE, RIBBS, and BRSKT—and some is as fascinating as it is reassuring (if you've ever been on a flight that had a missed approach, Vanhoenacker explains, you didn't actually almost die—in fact, the pilots were doing exactly what they were supposed to).
Skyfaring invokes writers like Walt Whitman and J.G. Ballard, and it's unusual—and welcome—to see air travel glimpsed through such a literary, almost academic lens, steeped in compelling imagery. Vanhoenacker's portrait of the Boeing 747, for instance, is less a tribute to a modern machine than a reframing of the airplane as something closer to a huge, robotic animal. It looks like "a bird if you account for the wings... an orca if you do not," Vanhoenacker writes—and so it is, an enormous, man-made creature equipped with super-smart, intentionally redundant homing devices, and even, it turns out, its own voice. Given current rules about cockpit access, short of flying lessons, a book like this is the closest many of us will ever get to flying with an honest-to-god pilot. And if you're afraid of flying, you'll likely find Skyfaring deeply soothing—especially the section where Vanhoenacker describes in great detail the intricate checklist system used by pilots in flight.
But more than just assuaging largely irrational fears, Vanhoenacker's book does something perhaps even more useful in our post-9/11 airport world, with all its requisite annoyances and indignities: Skyfaring serves as a powerful reminder that the fact of flying is amazing. Not like, this brunch is amazing-amazing, but holy shit I am zooming along right next to Mt. Hood and that means I am almost home and that is amazing-amazing. He recasts the mystery surrounding flight—and the overwhelming sense it may inspire—not as inherently good or bad, but as an ineffable, occasionally beautiful part of modern life.
"[We] are lucky to live in an age in which many of us, on our busy way to wherever we are going, are given these hours in the high country, when lightness is lent to us, where the volume of our home is opened and a handful of our oldest words—journey, road, wing, water; earth and air, sky and night and city—are made new," he writes. "From airplanes we occasionally look up and are briefly held by the stars or the firmament of blue. But mostly we look down, caught by the sudden gravity of what we've left, and by thoughts of reunion, drifting like clouds over the half-bright world."