Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot

Image of Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot
Release Date: 
June 1, 2015
Reviewed by: 

This book is disappointing. The problem with Skyfaring is that I just finished reading another pilot’s memoir, James Salter’s Burning the Days, and in comparison Mark Vanhoenacker’s memoir suffers greatly. Vanhoenacker does convey the sights, sounds, and smells of foreign cities; however his writing is flat and unengaging.

Much of Skyfaring seems to be the reciting of lists, lists of cities, lists of geographic regions, and lists of commercial air jargon. But if a reader were to be interested in lists of foreign cities, foreign airports, and lists of commercial flights’ technical aspects, without caring all too much about Mark Vanhoenacker himself, Skyfaring might be of value.

Technical topics addressed in Skyfaring include “wayfaring,” or how a commercial pilot gets from point A to point B in the sky. Wayfaring is done by following navigation beacons set at waypoints along routes, today guided by GPS but before GPS there was inertial guidance and ring laser gyros. A navigator also has to know the difference between the geomagnetic North Pole and the geographic North Pole, and this difference varies, and not only does the difference vary on the map, the difference varies over time; the magnetic North actually moves over time, several dozen miles per year.

For the commercial air pilot, the geographical regions of the world are sectioned into regions with names that may not correspond to the their name on the ground. For example, the New York air region encompasses not just the sky above New York but also the sky above of New England, while the Maastricht air region covers not just the sky above the Netherlands but also the sky above Belgium, Luxembourg, and Northwest Germany.

What makes James Salter’s memoir compelling and Mark Vanhoenacker’s memoir not? In Salter’s memoir the reader gets to know who James Salter is, his motivations, the good and the bad, basically the reader gets to know who the author is, his character, something that is more than just being a pilot. Salter provides the reader an interior dialog. 

Once in a while Vanhoenacker does wax poetic to show what he is capable of. For example, “Sky-Maastricht is not Belgium or the Netherlands, yet its cold aerial polyhedral, sharply bordered and as meaningless as sliced air, blankets them all—a new improbably named country above Europe.” But Vanhoenacker’s use of poetic imagery is all too rare, and we do not get much insight into Vanhoenacker, the man.

I lost interest about halfway through. Mark Vanhoenacker may be a first-class pilot, but he does not fall into that all-important category of being a first-class memoirist.