Mark Vanhoenacker, 747 pilot and author of Skyfaring, answers them all.
Last year, Mark Vanhoenacker, an American British Airways pilot (with a Belgian surname), wrote a book about flying commercial airplanes for a living. That stackup of nationalities gives a first taste of the many many places the book goes, the general borderlessness of Skyfaring.
A former academic and management consultant, Vanhoenacker, used a quarter-life pivot to place himself behind the
wheel yoke of the 747—a plane that the architect Norman Foster called the twentieth-century building he admired most.
The book is a sustained meditation on the wonders of flight. How, as St. Exupéry said, flying can release the mind “from the tyranny of petty things.” In a moment when there seems significantly more to complain about aboard an airplane than admire, Vanhoenacker lets us see the world inside the cabin and outside the windows with renewed reverence. See what we mean:
“Airplanes raise us above the patterns of streets, forest, suburbs, schools, and rivers. The ordinary things we thought we knew become new or more beautiful, and the visible relationship between them on the land, particularly at night, hint at the circuitry of more or less everything.”
The book is also packed with explanations to curiosities you’d maybe never considered: the logistics of political borders in the sky; how waypoints get their names (BARBQ, SPICY, RIBBS, and BRSKT near Kansas City; PLGRM, CHWDH, and LBSTA in New England); how a big bird like a 747 (too heavy for the tarmac of many airports) even gets off the ground.
On the occasion of the paperback release of Skyfaring, Vanhoenacker sat with me in the cockpit of a 747 parked at JFK and indulged every question I (and anyone who flies with any regularity) have ever wanted to ask the person responsible for leading me across the sky.
Do you ever feel guilty cutting a giant security line?
At many airports there are separate lanes or entire separate areas for crew. Otherwise, customers tend to be pretty good-natured about it—they’ll often make jokes about us needing to go ahead of them to the aircraft, in order to turn on the lights or “kick the tires”—and of course the sooner we’ve done our checks the sooner customers can get on board.
Can you ever play music in the cockpit?
Sadly no. Sometimes when your flight is delayed, on the ground waiting for a couple hours, without passengers on board, you might put some music on in the cockpit. On the radio, you might hear a little music break through on an air traffic control frequency, those frequencies aren’t much higher than the ones used by commercial radio stations. But as for listening to music while flying, no—which I don’t understand! I think surgeons can listen to Beethoven if they want, right? Or is that just in movies?
Have you ever had to remove a belligerent passenger off a flight?
Never. But very occasionally we have a passenger who gets on the plane not feeling well, and of course they want to get on the flight, they’re with their family or going on a long-planned vacation. But we have to think ahead to what happens if they get worse over the ocean, or over a remote part of the world.
What happens when someone has a medical emergency?
With three hundred and fifty passengers aboard, it’s not all that unusual to have someone feel unwell during the flight. In addition to the medical training that all cabin crew get, it’s also not too uncommon to have a crew member with a medical background.
One of the advantages of big planes like the 747 is that the bigger the plane is, the more likely it is that there’s a doctor onboard. If you look at the demographics of long-haul air travelers and the travel habits of physicians, there’s a lot of overlap. I have a cousin in Belgium who’s a radiologist, and he goes to conferences a lot and so he’s often on a plane where, like, half the people on the plane are doctors.
What’s the significance of that iPad?
It’s where we keep all of our flight maps now. We used to have a library here in the cockpit, several shelves’ worth of books, and with a 747, a jet that might go pretty much anywhere, we needed charts for the whole world. But we’ve gone completely electronic now. The iPad also stores all of our technical manuals—they form their own library—as well as the extensive paperwork for each flight. The iPad is basically a means of saving fuel, by reducing weight.
In the book you mention the insane cost of fuel for every additional pound of weight on the plane. Besides getting rid of the physical maps, are there other things the airline does to cut weight?
Until five or six years ago, the bathroom here in the 747’s cockpit was a standard fit, the same as those in the passenger cabin, which made sense. But someone finally said, “Why is there a baby changing station in this bathroom?” And so they were able to get rid of that fold-down table. When you take even a few pounds off a plane that’s flying every day, the fuel savings adds up pretty quickly. Or in the bunk where we take our breaks on long flights, after we get up we remove the bedding, put it in the hamper, and make the bed as a courtesy for the next pilot. At some point someone looking to save weight said, “we can live without hampers, we need our twelve pounds of weight back.”
Do you ever name the different planes?
Individual airplanes used to have names, like ships. So this 747 might be “The City of Leicester,” or something like that, and there might be a little placard here in the cockpit.
How often are you flying with autopilot?
We typically fly the climb and descent manually. There are actually three separate autopilot systems. When we’re cruising at high altitude, just one is engaged. But if we have to land with the autopilot—which you’d pretty much only need to do if it was foggy—then all three autopilots are engaged for redundancy. I’ll probably do one autopilot landing a year, usually in London fog, and usually in the early morning there. Cities have their own typical weather patterns, and you get to know them by season and even the time of day. It’s interesting: I don’t think I’ve ever landed at LAX when it’s not a sunny day. But that’s because our flights from London land in the afternoon or evening. Other pilots who land in the morning will have a much foggier impression of L.A. The mist is long gone by the time we fly in later in the day.
How hectic is it flying into New York, with the three giant airports?
As we fly we’re moving through different airspace sectors, as if they’re rooms in a house. Each ‘room’ has its own controller. Everything is structured around safety. So while New York is a busy section of airspace, the controllers deal with that by making the chunks of airspace that each one covers smaller. On a long flight from London to L.A., we might be over the open ocean or the Canadian Arctic, without any other airplanes around, and we might be in the same sector of airspace—the same room—for a long time, maybe 40 minutes. Whereas on approach to Kennedy, the sectors might change every few minutes.
In some parts of the world they change the size of the sectors even in the course of a day—so that at night they can expand, because there’s less traffic overall. There are also standard arrival and departure routes to and from airports, which are published on charts. They help us navigate through busy airspace, and they cut down the workload for both us and the controllers.
Are you speaking English to every one of those voices?
Along-haul pilot has to speak English. It’s the universal language of aviation, which seems appropriate for such a globalized industry. But there are a few places where some pilots have a chance to speak their own language. This happens at many French and Spanish airports, for example. So if you fly to Paris, say, the Air China flight and the Lufthansa flight and the Delta flight will speak with the controllers in English. But when a French pilot joins the frequency, they’ll speak in French. Or sometimes you’ll hear a French pilot over Canada checking in with a controller in the airspace around Montreal, and there’ll be a brief conversation in French—one of the many small ways that history and culture are lifted into the sky.
How does the ground ID the different airlines?
Every flight has a different call sign, which is a combination of an airline-specific identifying prefix and then some letters or numbers—often just the flight number. British Airways, for example, uses Speedbird as its identifier—and there’s a long and glorious history to that name. If you hear a Speedbird call sign, they’re almost always going to have a British accent. With a few exceptions—like me…
And you’re always speaking to the controllers?
One of the disadvantages of radio communications is that a number of pilots and the controller are sharing a kind of ‘party line’, and only one person can speak at once. So over much of the world, especially during the cruise segment of a flight, we actually use a kind of text messaging now. Or it’s a combination of voice communications and that text messaging. So we’re still on a voice frequency with a controller, like the old days, and could speak to them anytime we wanted, but most of our routine exchanges are electronic. It’s one of the big innovations that’s taken place in the years I’ve been flying. I still like voice communications though—it’s lovely to hear accents change as the earth turns beneath us.
Do you fly with pilots who have been flying the 747 for decades?
Yup, some people have a very deep love for this plane. I fly with some senior colleagues who started flying on what we call the Classic, the 747-200. When those jets were retired many of those pilots moved to the current model, the 747-400, and have no interest in flying anything else before they retire. In the book I mention a friend of mine who didn’t want to become a pilot—she specifically wanted to become a 747 pilot.
Are you permitted any personal modifications in the cockpit?
Not really. Some people have little preferences, though. I flew with a captain who put a baseball cap on every time right before he landed. You have your own sunglasses, of course. Some people bring their own back cushions or pillows for the seat. Otherwise, everything else is certified. Take the headsets. Someone who flies privately, they might have their own Bose aviation headset, but you can’t just bring one of those to work and plug it in. The regulations are incredibly detailed. On longer flights with extra pilots we each get a break in the flight deck bunk, and it still feels kind of strange to pack my striped pajamas from home into my flight bag, to carry halfway across the planet.
When I’m waiting at a gate, why does it look like there’s a little engine on the back of the plane that’s spitting shit out?
That’s actually an extra jet engine, called an auxiliary power unit, or APU. But it doesn’t help the plane move—it’s typically used to power the electrics and air conditioning while the plane is parked. But it is nevertheless a jet engine, and on a big plane like a 747 the APU is a pretty powerful engine all its own. You know when your plane pushes back from the gate and the engines start, there’s sometimes a brief click, or a flicker of the lights in the cabin? That’s because the main engines are coming to life and are taking over from the APU, which is typically then shut down.
Why do flights from the Middle East take off in the middle of the night?
load of passengers on the hottest days, so it made sense to schedule flights—especially long flights, with a lot of heavy fuel on board—for late at night. These days, with newer aircraft, such limitations aren’t generally a problem. But the tradition seems to have stuck. Pilots still do a walk-around, an exterior inspection, before each flight, and I’d much rather do it when it’s 85 and dark out than 115 and sunny.
What’s the absolute best place to watch planes land?
The In-N-Out Burger near LAX. In terms of both dining and plane-spotting, it’s pretty much as good as it gets.