Pittsfield native shares love of flying in new book
Pittsfield native Mark Vanhoenacker has been obsessed with flying since he can remember — collecting model planes as a kid, watching airplanes land at Pittsfield Municipal Airport until he eventually got behind the controls during his first flying lesson at the same airport as a 16-year-old, eager to see the world from a different view.
It's that view — the unobstructed window seat of a cockpit — that Vanhoenacker shares with readers in his first book, "Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot" (Knopf).
"The book is what I would tell you and show you if you could come up in the cockpit during flight," said the 41-year-old pilot/author during a phone interview from his New York City home, where he lives when he's not jetting across the globe, flying 747s from London's Heathrow Airport, his "home base" airport. "Since 9/11, we can't have visitors during the flight. This book is my effort to give any reader interested that experience."
The book — which went from an idea to hardcover after a literary agent in England noticed Vanhoenacker's articles about flying and travel published in The New York Times — weaves the wonder of flying we've all felt at one time, perhaps as small children, with the technical details of manning a large machine across various time zones, countries and international airspace.
"Mr. Vanhoenacker, fortunately for his readers, has lost none of his sense of wonder at the miracle of flight itself ... a beautifully observed collection of details, scenes, emotions and facts from the world above the world," according to a review published in The Economist.
It's that wonder, Vanhoenacker said, he hopes to bring back to travelers, who may have once found the joy in flight, but today forget, or throw away the miracle of such engineering as a means to an end.
"I think things we do all the time become ordinary to us," he said. "Flying, in a way, is a victim of its own success. If planes took us up there just to look around, our love would be much more obvious. If all we did was go up there and look down at the clouds, down on Berkshires — if that's all planes did — they would be considered these incredible wonders. But because we use them for transportation and they are safe and efficient, we lose track of the wonder of flying."
"Skyfaring" chronicles Vanhoenacker's journey from the Berkshires to the controls of a commercial airbus, which has landed him across the globe in places like Johannesburg, South Africa and Singapore. He writes how these foreign places suddenly become familiar, accessible to him thanks to the work of flying passengers back and forth across the world.
"I might eat dinner with a member of the cabin crew at a Belgian restaurant in Beijing ... Countries blur, cities elide. Airline crews experience this age of cities, if not quite as casually as they do the rooms of their homes, as little more than different districts of the earth metropolis," Vanhoenacker writes in "Skyfaring."
The book is broken down into nine categories, beginning with "Lift" and ending, naturally, with "Return." In between, Vanhoenacker explores concepts like place — explaining the difference between "jet lag," and what he calls "place lag," which he writes is a common experience for pilots, flight attendants and frequent fliers. It's the idea that one can feel completely out of place, not knowing or comprehending where they are in relation to where they just were mere hours ago — think of leaving your home one afternoon, flying overnight and landing in a completely different city, with different language and culture to absorb. For pilots, like Vanhoenacker, this experience is common and often worsens over time, he writes, because they are so often moving on to the next flight, the next city, before their minds and bodies can acclimate to the current location.
It's that sense of place lag that has Vanhoenacker appreciating the Berkshires more and more, he said.
"The more I travel away from the Berkshires, the more I appreciate [the area]," he said. "I don't just mean the cultural aspects, but just the sense that I realize how lucky I was to grow up in a green place. You can drive 10 minutes in any direction from a city and find open forest. It's a place where nature is so accessible."
Whether you're interested in the day-to-day workings of the life of a pilot — for example, Vanhoenacker never changes his watch to accommodate different time zones when trying to acclimate himself to a new one every few days wouldn't be productive or useful, he said — or harbor a traveling spirit, Vanhoenacker hopes this book reawakens a love for flying in everyone who reads it.
"I hope people will have a reason to think again about how amazing it is to fly and cross the world in this way and to think of how unusual this is," he said. "A friend of my parents still lives in Pittsfield, and I recently took her out to lunch. When we parted, she said 'Fly safe and enjoy the world.' I think that's a good summary of the book, in way."
What: Book signing and reading with Mark Vanhoenacker
When: 7 p.m. Friday, June 19
Where: The Bookstore, 11 Housatonic St., Lenox
For more information: Visit bookstoreinlenox.com/
To purchase the book: 'Skyfaring' can be purchased in all major bookstores, local bookstores or online
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