[Book Review] Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker
A journey is always an emotional existence, no matter with happy expectations or reluctant grumbles. A journey is a temporary period of time which separates us from our daily routine and set us aside for something else, maybe a film, or staring outside the window, or simply a sleep.
A journey on an aircraft is always mysterious to me. I can still remember the first time I was on a “trans-continental” flight from Beijing to London, especially the sound when a section of the wings (flaps I knew later on) were extended and the claps when the aircraft landed. Despite obtaining a master's degree in flight control, each time I was in an airport, walking along the glass facades beside the boarding gate, I was still awed by such a huge machine. While flying high above in the sky, it perfectly insulates us from the harsh environment and hides every possible technical details. This book, “Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot” by Mark Vanhoenacker, provides exactly a journey through the mysterious aspects of an aerial journey.
The book starts as an airliner takes off and ends as it returns to the home airport. Anecdotes, stories and narratives happen in between. Modern airliners (even ourselves sometimes) rely on GPS to find where they are and the way to the destination. But an old system using radio beacons and waypoints are still in use, like the light houses in a remote and barren sea. Many waypoints have random names, but some do have funny ones like PRAWN, SHARK, WALTZ, TILDA, SNUPY. Some pilots like Airbus aircraft because they have tray tables for the pilots to eat meal and drink coffee, while a Boeing 747 has foot heaters in cockpits so that pilots do not need to wear heavy socks.
The airliner itself embodies sufficient mysteries, for example, how does an aircraft determine its altitude and speed? It turns out never to be an easy task. There are quite a few different altitudes and speeds in use in different cases. You definitely don't want to use altitude derived from a barometer while flying above a mountain, a radio altimeter is more useful in this case. Aircraft at high altitudes actually fly faster than those at low altitudes even their indicated speed are the same, because the air is thinner at higher altitude. Furthermore, many of the instruments are duplicated on an airliner, one for the captain(left side) and the other for the co-pilot(or first officer, right side). There is a saying borrowed from seafaring “port out, starboard home”, which means to use the left-side instruments when leaving home, and use the right-side ones when going back. Sounds interesting, right?
In addition to all these technical aspects, journey on an airliner also has its sentimental parts. As a pilot, it is common for the author to fly with unknown passengers, even cabin crews whom they have never met before. He move to unfamiliar places, living in hotels, and may travel back with an empty and dark cabin. It is a kind of loneliness, but on the other hand, it is constant encountering, with crews and passengers, with air traffic controllers, or other pilots using the same common frequency radio.
At night, when everything settles down and most passengers fall asleep, stars blink in the sky, without any blockage from the clouds or pollutants. Aurora or northern lights may also occur if the airliner travels at high latitude. In this peaceful night, we are going back home.
The author of the book, Mark Vanhoenacker, has some exciting experiences. He became a consultant after graduation. Then driven by his childhood and everlasting impetus for flying, he got his commercial pilot licence and joined British Airways, flying both Airbus A320 and Boeing 747.