Whether we are embarking on a personal adventure or jetting off on business, boarding an aircraft has become a common occurrence for most of us. However, no matter how familiar we become with stepping through those aircraft doors, the experience never fails to evoke a sense of wonder within us – even for a pilot.
In episode four of the Skift Ideas Podcast, Colin is joined by Mark Vanhoenacker, a seasoned commercial airline pilot for British Airways and best-selling author of Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot, How to Land a Plane, and Imagine A City.
With Mark’s extensive experience and first-hand insights into the realm of aviation, Colin and Mark will explore some of the more poetic and etherial experiences from 35,000 feet above the ground; to the worldview that Mark has from connecting with people and cities globally.
Listen as Colin and Mark remind us that modern aviation, beyond simply being a means of transportation, has the power to ignite an unwavering curiosity and opportunity to explore the worlds that lie both above and below the horizon.
Colin Nagy: Hey everyone, welcome back to the Skift Ideas podcast. Thanks for tuning in. I’m Colin Nagy and we have a very exciting episode for you today. I’m excited to be joined by Mark Vanhoenacker. He is a commercial airline pilot for British Airways and the author of a fantastic book called ‘Skyfaring: A Journey with A Pilot’ and ‘How to Land a Plane’.
He’s been a columnist for the Financial Times and a regular contributor to The New York Times and also has written for The Times UK, The Atlantic, Wired and the Los Angeles Times.
Born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Mark trained as a historian and worked as a management consultant before starting his flight training in Britain in 2001. He now flies the Boeing 787 Dreamliner from London to cities around the world.
Mark, we’re super, super happy to have you with us today.
Mark Vanhoenacker: Oh, I’m really happy to be here Colin. And I’m a huge fan of Skift, so yeah, it’s a special day.
Nagy: Awesome. Well, thank you for being here. I’ve been a fan of the books for a long time. So wanting to kick off and you know, you had a different career path kind of coming up, but just give us a little bit of the background of how you became a pilot and, you know, some of those examples of intrigue and what really piqued your interest when you were young.
Vanhoenacker: So growing up in Pittsfield, that small city in western Massachusetts, I was in love with airplanes. Airplanes were the first thing I remember loving as a kid or really capturing my interest as a kid. I had tons of model airplanes. I loved to go to air shows with my dad. I had books about planes.
Every time we flew, we didn’t fly all that often, but when we did, it was far more exciting to me to be on the plane than to get off it. It was just that classic, you know, love for the window seat and the view. And I was also, you know, in love with maps as well. I had one of those illuminated globes in my room and an atlas that I turned to.
And I would read off the cities on there that were, you know, just names to me, nothing more than names, but, you know, super evocative names. Cape Town for one, Hong Kong, Sydney, Vancouver, Rio de Janeiro… All these places that I never thought I’d see. And so those two interests were kind of with me, all through my childhood.
But, you know, aviation does run in families, but it didn’t really run in my family. And so, if my father or mother or another relative had been a pilot, maybe I would have come to the career much sooner than I did. Instead, I went to college and grad school. I started a Ph.D. in history, but I never finished it.
And then I decided to become an airline pilot. And in order to save money for it, I took an office job and I went into that consulting job because I knew it was one where I’d fly a lot. So, you know, that company had an office right in Boston on the waterfront with a great view of Logan Airport.
So I spent most of my time either on planes or watching planes. And then a few years after that, I got onto a cadet training program just before 9/11. And that was, you know, it’s that classic tale of a dream come true, I guess. I get a lot of emails from readers who use that phrase a dream come true, and that’s still what it feels like to me.
I started on the A320 fleet at Heathrow. My first flight was actually just over 20 years ago from Heathrow to Glasgow, and then in 2007 I switched to the 747, which was the plane I had dreamed of flying as a kid. I’m sure we’ll talk more about that. And then five years ago I switched to the 787 which is what I fly now.
Nagy: I loved reading about, I believe you were picking up a family member or friend at Kennedy, and you saw I believe it was like the Saudia tailfin. You know, and that was like one of your first memories of, of something that you didn’t quite understand. And its routine going back and forth to this far flung place was like your routine of walking back and forth to school.
So I love that early taste of the world and the mysteries of it, you know, as you were young.
Vanhoenacker: Yeah. You know, many of your listeners who are my age or a little bit older, will remember the old Pan Am Worldport, that terminal at JFK, which has been gone for years now. But I remember parking on it with my dad and we were going to pick up a relative coming from Belgium.
And, just the idea of going to Kennedy for the day, for a few hours to look at those planes and think, to look at those departure screens and think of the places they were coming from or going to was, you know, it was just magical. It was absolutely magical to me.
Nagy: Now, as you went into the cadet program, what was that first time being under control of an aircraft, whether that was, you know, with an instructor or whatever. Just tell me about the feeling of that, because there’s a lot of people that like flying and aviation, but then when they try their hand at the real thing, it can be a little overwhelming.
So talk me through that a little bit? Was it love at first experience or was it a little overwhelming?
Vanhoenacker: You know, a pilot’s career, it has a number of firsts. So, there’s your first lesson. And for me, that had happened when I was 16 or 17 in western Massachusetts, and that was a flight over my hometown from Pittsfield Airport. And, you know, that hometown plays a big role in the new book ‘Imagine a City’.
But that view of my home from above. You know, to suddenly look down on your own streets and like, oh, my God, that’s my high school. And that’s my dad’s office. And that’s the school my mom works in. And oh, I know that hill and oh, that road. I didn’t know that road went that way.
You know, that sense of seeing the world from above, which completely transcends. I mean that was a revelation in the early 20th century that, you know, really changed the way we saw ourselves and saw ourselves as a species. And I think everyone who flies has, you know, a moment of that kind of species level wonder the first time they fly.
And then, the other milestones I guess for the first time I did a solo flight. So that was in Arizona. And again, you know, that’s a feeling you just never forgot the first time your instructor gets out of the aircraft and you head off and you do your your three touch and go landings and, that sense that you’ve learned enough and you have enough training now to be up there safely is you know, is a really wonderful feeling and it gives you a great sense of accomplishment.
I remember my first night flight as well. I mean, one of my favorite things to see from above even now from an airliner are cities from above at night. And the first time I flew at night, which was also in Arizona, and to look down on the cityscape and, you know, Arizona, the you know, the air there is so dry and so and the cities so sprawling.
It’s like a mini Los Angeles or not so many of these days. And to suddenly rise above it and just see it stretching out like this microchip after the hills was a major feeling.
And then, of course, there’s the first flights on an airliner. So on my first flight, obviously, we spent a lot of time in the simulator training. And those simulators are as good as the aircraft for training. But nevertheless, we did have a day where we took an Airbus to France for the day, me and five or six other trainees and a couple of examiners or trainers. And there were those first flights of an actual airliner which were incredible. And then, of course, a few days later, the first ones with customers onboard, when you’re finally earning your keep as a pilot.
So there’s many levels to the way that dream can come true. And yeah, that’s been my thoughts. Do you remember your first flight? Do you remember your very first flight as a passenger?
Nagy: You know, I just remember I grew up near San Francisco and I just remember waking up very early with my family, you know, and driving in. And at that point, we were kind of like a United family. So Rhapsody in Blue, you know, is the kind of theme song for just that kind of era of early eighties sort of California SFO optimism, which is kind of what I what I remember and what’s actually quite poignant is we had an exchange student actually from Belgium when I was in high school and he was like, I’m going to be a pilot.
And, you know, everyone’s kind of razzing him like, yeah, yeah, yeah. But he went back, I believe he got most of his hours in the Belgian Air Force and then flew for Sabena the national carrier, now defunct, and then was with Emirates for a long time. And so my mom was kind of his rock, you know, when he was a young Belgian kid studying in a faraway land.
And so I brought my mom to Dubai on a trip and we got to spend time with him and it was very nice. It was a very nice kind of way to close the loop.
Vanhoenacker: Yeah absolutely.
Nagy: He kind of had this hero’s journey of doing something that’s difficult, which I think was great.
But switching gears a little bit to what you touched on, which is the sort of geography and almost the poetry of seeing the world from a different vantage point. It’s what I really, really loved in ‘Sky Faring’ is that it kind of makes the hairs stand up on my arm thinking about some of those passages, because you very evocatively write about flying through the air at night and almost these comforting things, these familiar things where what you describe is as waypoints.
And I would love for you to just kind of talk about the passage over unfamiliar or familiar terrain and the kind of feelings that evokes for you.
Vanhoenacker: Yeah. So one of the things I really tried to get across in ‘Sky Faring’ was how there is a world above the world that pilots move through, that is mapped and controlled and regulated. And that it has, you know, it has place names in it that are very much like any landscape that you would get to know personally or professionally down on the earth.
And one of the major ways in which the sky is divided is into these things called flight information regions. And they are these kinds of countries of the sky and, you know, there’s six or seven in Northwest Europe, there is I don’t know how many there are in the U.S., 10 or 14 or something like that.
And they have names, and usually they’re named for cities. So they have this, you know, there’s this quality of when you’re coming back across Europe to London and the last Dutch controller says to you, you know, ‘contact now London’ and you call the city. I mean, you literally use the city’s name to speak to the next controller as you move into London’s air space.
And then, of course, many of those cities have far more evocative names, even at least for someone from my part of the world. You know, you fly over Samarkand or Dushanbe or you talk to Lahore or Delhi, as I just did on my last trip. And so you have this sense of cities and of casting these shadows up into the sky and defining the sky above them in a way which was very unexpected to me when I became a pilot.
And then there are waypoints, which are these five letter coded positions in the sky. There’s one called Logan or Tulip or, you know, they have all sorts of names. Often they’re named for sports figures in that city or for tourist attractions or something like that. And often they’re just completely random.
They just want to be, they want them to be easily pronounceable to whatever your first language. And so an airway that might take you from London to Cape Town, for example, there’s probably a whole series of airways that you move from one to the other as you went, and they will be marked out along these waypoints, which form a kind of wayfinding in the sky, a kind of signposting and a measure of your progress.
Often, air traffic control might ask you to report at a certain waypoint, and you would tell them, yeah, we’re just passing this waypoint at this altitude. And so the sense of the sky above is filled with its own geography, which, you know, next time you’re just walking in a field outside your home, you could look up and just try to imagine the lines and the places there that exist virtually.
But quite importantly, for the pilots whose job it is to fly through the skies.
Nagy: I think there’s also something very interesting about, it’s a very spiritual experience you’re kind of flying through the air at night, yet the communication with these different cities as you’re flying over is so matter of fact. So there’s no wasted words as you’re talking to these people. So it’s you having this very emotional experience transcending space and time, but you’re having a very transactional conversation on the ground, right?
Vanhoenacker: Yeah, and you know, the language of flying is something I’ve written a few articles about. And its compactness has its own kind of poetry to it. You know, there’s no fat on it at all, as you say. And therefore, if you’re inclined to sort of minimalism, then the simpler it is, the more evocative or the more poetic it can be.
And certainly, you know, aviation in general, I think combines some sort of technical prowess or engineering qualities of efficiency and compactness, with our oldest dream of taking flight. And the interplay between the scientific and the romantic is something that I really wanted to capture in ‘Sky Faring’ and in ‘Imagine a City’ as well.
But I think, think it’s not often appreciated how much kind of romance there still is for the job and that doesn’t come into the actual job, it’s not a part of anything we do formally. And yet I do think there’s an attraction to the job for many people.
Nagy: I also think that what I love about your writing is you’re still in love, right? Sometimes as I’m walking through, an American city airport, I see a very beleaguered American Airlines pilot or a United captain. And these guys have been running hard for a long time. There’s not a lot of healthy things to eat there in this kind of liminal space.
And I just feel like it has to be a little taxing on the body and the soul, which I’m sure it is for you at times, but it feels like there’s still is a love for both the poetic and as you write in your latest book, ‘Imagine a City’, the exploration that it affords. And like the expansiveness that you kind of get to see.
Vanhoenacker: Yeah. You know, one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed writing about flying is that, even for me, with perhaps this slightly romantic tendency when it comes to thinking about my job, you know, even for me, after a certain number of years, you start to get accustomed to things. I mean, I’ve seen the Northern Lights. I mean, every winter I see them dozens of times.
And, when I have some friends, you know, they’re going to Norway or somewhere in Alaska to go see the Northern Lights, and you think these people are making a journey of a lifetime to see something I see basically on most night flights in the winter. Not all, but most.
And you know, you start to get used to that and I wanted to not get used to it. And writing about it and trying to share my enthusiasm for and in particular trying to describe it, is something that feels a little bit like a mission to me, both because it helps me engage with with readers, but also because it maintains my own, you know, my own interest in it as time goes on.
And it reminds me that these things are unique. And, I just saw a tweet by an American journalist who was on a flight somewhere and he was lamenting that on a transcontinental flight, there were only two or three people who had the windows open on a day flight.
And, you know, people have screens of course, there’s so much work they have to do. People want to sleep. But I do want to remind people that if they do want to look outside or at least think about the activity of flying, that it’s reliably full of wonder. I think I would say.
Nagy: There’s a great book that I’m sure has come across your radar. Alain de Botton wrote that book called ‘A Week at the Airport’. And he managed to find this, you know, he was basically embedded at Heathrow for a week. And he’s such a wonderful writer and observer and a philosopher, and was able to find so much beauty and so many interpersonal stories, just kind of being an observer at the arrivals area of the airport. Which seems like it could be a fairly trite conceit, but he managed to really pull out some beautiful threads with it in a nice way.
And what I wanted to also talk to you about is, you know, for a long time before you moved to the 787 Dreamliner, you were flying on the 747, and going back to Pan Am and going back to a lot of the kind of days of the jet set, the beginning of the ability to kind of traverse the world.
This particular aircraft played a huge role. So I would love to know a little bit about your relationship to the 747, both as a pilot, perhaps aesthetically what it feels like to fly, and also just about your emotional connection to the history with the aircraft.
Vanhoenacker: First of all, I’m a huge fan of Alain de Botton and his writing and he’s been a big supporter of my own writing actually.
As for the 747, you know, one of my friends that I did my training with. When she was growing up, she didn’t want to become a pilot. She wanted to become a 747 pilot. Like it was that specific for her as a child. And for me, it wasn’t quite that powerful force, but nevertheless it was the plane that I loved and that I recognized. Most of the models I like best that I made, let’s say, were of 747.
The first flight I can remember, it was not the first flight I can remember, but the most meaningful early flight I took as a passenger was on a 747 KLM flight to Amsterdam when I was 14. And, you know, I think because I was going by myself and I was far more interested in the experience, it was a sort of heightened experience, literally, because I was without my parents.
And I remember seeing that beautiful blue plane, you know, in those great colors parked up at JFK, and stepping on to that just felt extraordinary. And, of course, the plane, you know, it really changed the world. It shrank the world in a way that, you know, computers do as well, of course.
But the 747 made it possible for long haul travel to be a sort of middle class ambition, which it had never been before. And, of course, it’s entered the culture in all sorts of ways, like, you know, Joni Mitchell has that song where she says, ‘I dreamed of 747 over geometric farms’ and, you know, I once was at an exercise class, I think it was in Vancouver at our hotel in Vancouver.
And at one point the instructor was saying, I think we were like lying on the floor, and she wanted us to lift our arms and legs up. And she’s like, you know, ‘lift them up like a 747 taking off’. I love the A320, but nobody’s ever going to say that about an A320, I think.
Norman Foster called it the 20th century building he admired the most, and it was just the shape of it. It was so birdlike, lifting the flight deck onto another deck, was designed for cargo. It was designed to make it possible to load cargo through the nose because they thought that the future was going to be supersonic travel.
So that shape was a pure engineering solution. And yet, to me, it made the aircraft, a, unique in terms of how it looked and b, quite birdlike. It looks like the head of a bird to me. So, you know, it still does. And so I loved it, and you must have had some amazing 747 experiences yourself over the years.
Nagy: I just remember flying when Cathay had them, on the upper deck and then obviously on B.A. 747 on that little upper deck where it just feels very private. You know, it feels like you’re completely like on another plane. And for me, just the aesthetic of it. I mean, obviously, there’s the enduring symbol of, you know, Air Force One and the colors of that and the way it looks on a tarmac.
But there’s just something about the aesthetic, but also the emotional role of the plane. As you said, kind of kick starting this new ability for us to traverse the world and thus it’s not just, you know, aviation nerds that are obsessed with it. I think that it kind of has transcended a lot of other things and kind of captured a lot of hearts as well.
I wanted to switch gears a little bit. And, you know, today we can get a glimpse of practically any city in the world through our phones, through Instagram. But you’ve explored the question quite often, has the city changed or have I? Which I really like, because when you have a geographical cadence or recurring cadence with a city, you notice its evolutions.
What city has surprised you, coming back or evolving? For me, I would say Singapore given the kind of recent geopolitical realignments of the world, the pace of development that’s happening on a very small, stretch of island, city state. But are there any cities that you’ve been frequenting that evolution, or devolution, has surprised you?
Vanhoenacker: I think from purely visuals and I mean, obviously if we we approach cities from the sky, so the way they look from above is, you know, is there first impression for us as it is for many passengers and, you know, the kind of explosion in skyscrapers all over the world over the last 20 years has just been, you know, really striking.
I mean, in London, right. Which I fly over, you know, multiple times a week, the new skyscrapers in the city, and down along the South Bank have just been, I kind of lose track of what they are now. I think, what is that, has that been there for a while? And then, of course, Dubai and Miami both have had really striking skyscraper booms.
But I think maybe the best answer to your question is probably around Delhi. So when I first went to Delhi, they had just begun building a metro. And since then it’s been developing very, very quickly. I’m not just an airplane geek, I’m also a bit of a sort of general transportation geek. And so, I really notice the transfer in the city and how easy it is to use and just how nice it is basically, I guess, and how convenient. And Delhi’s system is marvelous.
And for people who are traveling to a city the size of Delhi, you know, it’s one of the largest cities in the world, it is not an easy place to find your way around at street level. It’s cacophonous and often warm and it’s an exciting place, but it’s not necessarily the easiest place to get around. And I have been really struck by how much that’s changed as the metro has been developed there and how much freer even I, someone who’s been there dozens of times, how much more likely I am to go to a distant part of the city because I can get there on the metro.
And to watch one of the largest cities on Earth kind of construct that almost before my eyes has been a revelation and a joy. I was just in Delhi last week or two days ago, in fact, and was again struck by how nice it is. And, every city should have a metro as nice as Delhi’s in my opinion.
Nagy: Yeah, I was actually quite impressed with the transport that they put into Doha, you know, for the World Cup, like the actual underground or metro or subway, I forget what they’re calling it. They did a shockingly good job with that. And it actually did an amazing job during the World Cup, kind of getting people from stadium to stadium.
But going back to Dubai. That’s a great point. I saw a time lapse video the other day of, there’s an old white Toyota building, which was one of the first sort of like executive offices in Dubai, I believe, on Sheikh Zayed Road. And it just basically had a time lapse of that.
Vanhoenacker: I would love to see that!
Nagy: I should find it for you because it’s unbelievable, what a pace of growth there. And it’s also for my money, probably one of the more spectacle types of places to fly over as you’re coming in because you have the man made islands, you have the Burj, etc.
One of the most surreal trips that I took is at one point, this was like in the early 2000s maybe, I hadn’t spent a ton of time in the Middle East. And I did go on a business trip from, I think I was in Munich and I needed to get to Seoul and the team was like, oh, here’s your options to fly.
And one of them was like, you know, whatever Aeroflot or something, and I was like pass. And then I flew Etihad, and I remember just like flying into Abu Dhabi, and that amazing color of the water, you see some of the man made islands that Gursky has famously photographed and just feeling very otherworldly, you know, in the connection. And at that point, still, Abu Dhabi hasn’t opened up their new airport yet. And it still is that old, weird kind of older airport. But what an amazing kind of cross-section.
And that’s what I really love about these Middle Eastern airports is that there is such an incredible cross-section of so many different cultural operating systems, right? And I always get a kick out of, I believe it’s terminal two in Dubai, because you have guys flying into Kabul, you have Russian Orthodox over her, you have all sorts of different sorts of tribal characters, you have people flying to Tbilisi.
It’s like I’ve always wanted a street style photographer to post up in that particular terminal for some time.
But what I wanted to ask you is, with airports, as a frequent user and II’ve always liked how Tyler Brule at Monocle talks about the department of first impressions as you’re kind of arriving somewhere.
What are the airports that you really like from a feeling level, a visual level or just a general, you know, pragmatic level?
Vanhoenacker: I would say that there are some airports we go to where, you know, just on a pragmatic level where, I’m trying to think of a good example, Seychelles, for example, where you can walk through the airport in about three minutes and that just means you get to your bed faster. Or when you come back to the airport, you get to the aircraft in just a few minutes.
So, small airports do have that going for them. But I think the direction of your question is more about the sort of feel of greatness in large airports and I guess, the new airport in Beijing, Daxing, which opened four or five years ago, I wrote about it for the Financial Times, actually.
And, you know, it was just the halls of the interior halls of it, the arrival halls of it are extraordinary. And it’s you know, it’s a cathedral to planes, really. Which is saying something given the capital airport, the one that was opened for the Olympics, is itself one of the more striking airports I go to.
I love Vancouver’s airport. It’s very, very calm. They have a big water feature in the arrivals hall, and I think water is one of those things that just naturally relaxes people. I think they have an aquarium as well.
I will actually say, unbelievably perhaps, I went to LaGuardia recently and I was really, really impressed with it. They’ve put in a ton of money there. And it was a real joy to see New York have an airport that’s been changed that much.
And Boston, the other one to mention is Boston Logan. They’re building a new international terminal, which hasn’t opened yet, but it’s going to open later this year. And I’ve seen it, I fly to Boston all the time, and watching it rise and it’s red. It has its very striking color as opposed to just being a box of marble and glass and steel. It has a bright red color and I can’t wait to get inside it. So stay tuned.
Nagy: For me, there’s just something about Hong Kong. I believe it was Norman Foster, but there’s something about the use of the light. There’s something about how the sort of tail fins of aircraft are, like, framed beautifully amongst these very verdant hills. And there’s also just something about that airport that doesn’t feel kind of claustrophobic, right? There’s other airports like Hamad and Doha that almost have a casino-like feeling where you don’t know if it’s day or night, you know, kind of by air.
But there’s something to me that I’ll always love about Hong Kong. And also, I think that they’ve just been so inspired. Cathay has been very inspired by the designers that they’ve always worked with, with some of the lounges. Like I found out a few years ago that John Pawson, the designer, did their first lounge there, which has now been redone by Ilsa Crawford, but just that standard of knowing the designers that can interface well with that Foster vibe. There’s just something about it.
Also, I was talking the other day about how I love that passengers can check in with all their bags, like in town and they just get on.
Vanhoenacker: That used to be more of a thing, right? They had that it in Tokyo for a while and even at Paddington for a while. I don’t know.
Nagy: It’s yeah, it might be a security thing or it might be a COVID thing, but I know that in Dubai, Emirates have just opened an in town check in at the IFC, so people can drop their bags. But yeah, I just like when a lot of these airports are just trying to make themselves more efficient and make it easier for tourists to get in and for business travelers to get in.
And I do think that there’s a big point to this. Like, you know, department of first impressions, right? If you’re an investor coming to spend money in a place, it’s like, how are you treated? You know, as you’re getting off that 787.
I wanted to talk about two more topics because I know you have much to accomplish today other than just talking to us. But I wanted to talk about future pilots, right?
So what is it like becoming a pilot today? There’s some labor shortages, what do companies need to be thinking about? What advice would you give to a future pilot?
Vanhoenacker: That’s a good question. So, you know, I think worldwide there is a pilot shortage. That’s something I read about all the time. And so, for that reason alone, that would suggest it’s a good career. I get a lot of emails from people who are in their, let’s say, twenties to late thirties who wanted to become a pilot when they were a kid, they didn’t do it and now they’re quite far along into another career.
Often they’re very successful, you know, lawyers, accountants, that kind of thing, and they want to know whether it’s still possible. So I would say to them that, yes, it is possible. And, you know, I was 29 when I started flying, and that was when the retirement age was 55.
So that’s now 65. So, you know, that’s equivalent to starting at 39. And, you know, I would also say to younger people, you know, I don’t really know any pilots who don’t like their job. And that’s quite a thing to be able to say.
I have friends who work in all sorts of fields, in finance, in health care. And they all would say, on the one hand, this on the other hand that about their jobs and sometimes the other hand is the dominant one. I don’t really know of another job that people seem to enjoy so much. And I think that says something, right? I mean, if I had heard that earlier, I might have gone into it even earlier than I did.
And then, there are also just some preconceptions about, first of all, you don’t need to have 2020 vision. You’re allowed to wear glasses within limits and, you know, you don’t need to do it at 20 either – you can do it at 30 or 35 or even older.
That would be my main point of advice. And of course, if you’re a young person still in school, you’re going to need some math or some or some maths, as they say here and, and some physics and yeah, you’re going to need a good record if you want to get into it.
Nagy: Now you have me thinking, you know, there’s still a chance for me at age 42, but…
Vanhoenacker: Definitely! There’s definitely a chance.
Nagy: The physics thing could be a bit of a problem, but, you know, there’s an app for that, I’m sure.
Vanhoenacker: And in fact, British Airways just reopened its cadet training program this week for the first time in a while. I mean, I went to that program in 2001 and it has just been reopened. And that will be, for those in the UK, that will be important news.
Nagy: That’s fantastic.
Vanhoenacker: Yeah. Yeah.
Nagy: I wanted to end on a more sort of expansive note. I want you to talk to us a little bit about the world view that has been afforded to you, by this ability to travel the world. To kind of feel these feelings of moving beyond these waypoints and these, you know, these conversations with strangers throughout the sky. And also the ability to kind of feel the pulse and feel the people of many places, you know, how has it shaped you as as a human being?
Vanhoenacker: We see the world from above as pilots. And, I just flew to Delhi and I couldn’t even begin to list the number of cities we saw at night scrolling past, and cities from above at night are one of my favorite sites they are simultaneously biological and technical.
You can see how they fit into their landscape, or on a major harbor, or along a river downstream from other cities and upstream of others. And, of course, we see the continuity of the natural world from one place to another. You can see the landscapes that lie between one city and another if you’re flying during the day. And that can encompass a good portion of the planet on a long haul flight.
And then, of course, we land in these cities and, we have a really unique experience of them, which I really tried to get across in the new book, which is, when I was a business traveler, you would land and you would go straight to work and you’d be in a hotel and then you’d have meetings throughout the day and then dinners with clients or customers and, then you’d go and do it again the next day and maybe go to another city.
It’s kind of easy to forget where you were and hard to really take in the place you were in. And then, of course, if you go to a city as a tourist, which I still do, of course, as a personal traveler, you have a bucket list of sights you think, so many people are coming to Europe from the US this summer, you know, you’re going you might be flying to Paris and you know, you might reasonably think this is a trip of a lifetime.
I may never be in Paris again or Istanbul again. And so you want to do everything you can in that time. And, I’m just like many other people, I can tire myself out and kind of stop enjoying it or stop realizing where I am, or the scale of the journey that I’ve made. A journey in a few hours that would have been all but impossible for most of human history and might have taken weeks or months until the last 200 years or so.
Whereas when we go as pilots or as cabin crew, we land in a city and we don’t really have to do anything there. We are free to kind of explore and we don’t have meetings. And we also know that we’re going to come back again and again. You know, the first time I went to Beijing, some of my colleagues were going to go up to the Great Wall, and I had never been to Beijing or I had never been to China, I think.
And I thought, oh, of course I want to see the Great Wall. But I knew that I was coming back to Beijing. Even on that first visit, I knew I was coming back a few weeks later. So I was able to say on the first day, I’m just going to walk around.
I’m going to walk around and find a cafe and walk through this park. And then along this portion of the old city wall and just get a feel for the place in a way that’s that’s relaxed and kind of brings out the, you know, the commonality of cities as well as their uniqueness. And that’s really what I try to capture in my writing.
And you know, if’ Sky Faring’ was about life in the sky then this new book, ‘Imagine a City’, is more about life on the ground all over the world. Getting an experience of cities, which is probably unique in human history, and trying to share that with readers or customers as best we can.
Nagy: Well, thank you. Very well put. And I would highly recommend that everyone goes and buys ‘Sky Faring’ and the newest book which is called ‘Imagine a City’. Mark, thank you so much for joining us today. We’re very appreciative. We covered a lot of ground and it was an absolute pleasure having you on.
Vanhoenacker: Oh, it’s been a pleasure, Colin. And speaking of having you on, I hope to see you on a flight someday soon.
Nagy: Sounds good. I’ll be there.
Mark has generously sent us a passage from one of his books, which we will conclude our podcast with today. Thanks so much for listening.
Vanhoenacker: So this is a passage from the introduction to ‘Imagine a City’, and I’m sitting in my hotel room in Abu Dhabi thinking about what cities have meant to me and what my job as a pilot means to me. And in the next passage, I also mention my hometown, Pittsfield in Massachusetts, which plays a small role in this new book.
Most pilots love their job and tend not to want to retire when the rules say we must. When my days and nights of flying are finished, I want to be able to remember all I can about the cities I saw. In addition, while years and they remain before my retirement, I’d like to share now what I loved best about many of these cities. Not only with my family and friends, but with readers who might not travel as often, as far or in this extraordinary manner as a pilot does.
And extraordinary is the right word.
Long haul pilots, long haul airline pilots today are given an experience of cities that no one else in history has ever had. Two decades into my career, in an age in which it often seems that the urbanized future of our civilization is taking form directly before my eyes. My experience of cities as a pilot remains a source of deep fascination to me, one that’s distinct from my love for flight itself.
During a single flight that may cross above dozens of cities, most memorably after dark. On some journeys, the lights of a sleeping and apparently silent settlement beneath us, one that it doesn’t have a major airport we may not be able to name without consulting our navigation charts, suggest Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner passing like night from land to land, and the fragility and even the loneliness of what an observer arriving in our orbit might regard as only one more of the universes strands of bioluminescence.
On other flights, when I see a gathering of dim light stitched into the far below floor of a Siberian, or Nigerian, or Iranian night, I’m struck instead by a sense of warmth, even intimacy, about the possibility that I’m looking down on an evening much like the most peaceful ones in my Pittsfield childhood.
Then we descend.
If we do so at daybreak, the returning light allows us to see how wilderness, farmland, steep terrain or thousands of miles of open ocean give way to our destination.
One of the largest cities in history, perhaps, which has grown for its own long centuries, and which now on this latest this morning and in the last 20 minutes of our journey, expands to fill the jet’s windscreen with a map like view of its awakening Streets.