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For this pilot, flying isn't just a job, it's incredible (Q&A)

CNET talks to Mark Vanhoenacker, author of "Skyfaring" who's also a British Airways 747 senior first officer, on why flight is one of the greatest things we do.


You don't need to convince Mark Vanhoenacker that flying is amazing. Of course, it helps that he's a British Airways (aka BA) pilot, but flying isn't just part of his job. For him, it's a sincere passion that's only satisfied by sitting behind the controls of a Boeing 747. And it's passion he's eager to share.

His 2015 book, "Skyfaring", delves deeply into the magic and beauty of flight. An elegant writer with a sharp eye and a literary mind, Vanhoenacker focuses little on the nerdy science behind what makes flight human flight possible and completely skips dishy airline gossip (there are plenty of other books on both topics). Instead, he writes about flight on an emotional and spiritual level, how it makes him feel to soar above the Earth while watching the landscape pass below, and just how amazing it is that we can leave London at dinnertime and arrive in Cape Town the next morning for breakfast. Flying is always fascinating, and he excels at making it fascinating for even the most jaded road warrior.

As flying is a passion I share, even if I'm not a pilot myself, I devoured his book when I read it earlier this year. So, when Vanhoenacker and British Airways offered the chance to chat about "Skyfaring" and actually fly a 747 simulator, I was more than a bit excited (I've written about my virtual flight here). "Skyfaring" is out in hardback now with a paperback version published in the US in May and in the UK in June.

Editors' note: This interview has been edited and condensed. All questions were asked in person with the exception of two that were submitted via email.


Vanhoenacker in front of his office.

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Q: You were a management consultant when you changed careers to being a pilot. Though you wrote that you thought about making the switch for a long time, do you remember the exact moment when you said to yourself, "OK, yes. Now is the time."

Vanhoenacker: There were a couple of moments like that. Before I was in consulting I was doing a Ph.D., which I never finished. I was actually in Kenya for research when I decided I wasn't going to do it. So, I came back on a flight, and I went up to the cockpit -- those were the days when you could go up on a flight deck -- we were right over Istanbul. I was talking to the pilot, who didn't seem much older than I was, and I told him I always wanted to be a pilot. And he said, "You should just do it."

That was one of the first moments, but you need a lot of money to learn how to fly. So I got the office job to save money, and while I was doing that I found out about the cadet program at BA. I applied for that and I didn't get in the first time, but then they said they wanted me to apply again next year. So I did, and I got this very nice phone call in February of 2001 saying, "We'd like to offer you a course." I felt like Charlie opening the Golden Ticket.


Vanhoenacker behind the controls of a 747 simulator.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

How does the cadetship work? Can you have no experience at all?

Vanhoenacker: Most of us did have flying experience, but you can start with none. You go through this whole set of assessments, interviews and group exercises. That's how it was in 2001. And then they take you all the way through using a flight school. The school I went to was based in Oxford. For the visual flying they sent us out to Arizona. So I was in Phoenix for 3 or 4 months. It lasted 18 or 19 months total.

I've never thought about being a pilot because the thought of being responsible for others' lives is something I have a hard time grasping. What would you say to that?

Vanhoenacker: Whenever I fly with friends, I always ask for a window seat. And they say, "Why do you need a window seat? You have a window seats all the time." It's because I really like flying as a passenger; sometimes I like it even more than a pilot because you can listen to music and read a book and watch the world go by. I compare it to the way you go to a coffee shop in a nice European city and watch the world go by. But on a plane you can have a coffee and literally watch the world go by. It's like a geography lesson, it's a history lesson and a science lesson.


The window seat is the best seat.

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In your book you write about the emotional and spiritual aspects of flying. For someone that doesn't think of it in that way -- maybe they're a road warrior where flying is just a chore -- how do you explain it in those terms and help them appreciate the experience more?

Vanhoenacker: In once sense, I wrote the book for people that already love flying. But in some ways I was writing it for more for people who have to fly, but don't necessarily enjoy it. A lot of people love looking out the window, and I have an obvious kinship with them. But there are other people for whom flying is a part of their life. It's how they work, especially in the US where people have to move around a big country so quickly. And with so many people living far away from where they grew up, planes are a part of your social life and family life. They're part of your community; they're part of the way you make a community, but that doesn't mean everyone enjoys flying. For those people, I hope the book will maybe help them think about that in a new way. If you already love flying, that's great. But if you don't love it, what's better than to try to think about it in a slightly different way.

What would you say to a nervous flyer?

Vanhoenacker: We do have passengers like that. I'm not the only pilot that's written a book, by the way. There's quite a few. And one of them is a guy named Steve Allright [who's also a BA 747 pilot]). He's written a book called "Flying with Confidence", which is about how to make people nervous about flying feel better. Coming to the flight deck before departure often calms people down. We explain what we're doing, we show them the map. People often find that reassuring.

I know turbulence makes people uncomfortable. In his book, though, Steve says "Turbulence is often uncomfortable, but never dangerous." I quote that often when I'm talking to passengers. The cabin crew is also very experienced with helping nervous passengers. And they're going to deal with most of it because on a plane with 350 people, the [flight] crew can't speak to too many people before departure. As advice to passengers I would just say, "Tell the cabin crew that you're a nervous flyer." You will not be the first person to say that to them. Their job is to make your journey comfortable, they'll know what to say.

I have friends who are flight attendants, and most say they couldn't imagine going back to a life like I the one lead where I go to an office each day, have the weekend off, and then go back the next week. They enjoy the flexibility in the schedule and the change their jobs bring. Would you agree?

Vanhoenacker: I think I'd find it kind of hard to go back to a cubicle without a view. But there is something nice about getting home every night. Of course if you're a short-haul pilot, a lot of your trips will be trips where you go to work in the morning, you fly to Rome, you come back to London, and you go home and cook dinner. You'll still be working some weekends and you'll be overnight occasionally. For me, the job opens up the whole world. I always say, even if you don't love flying, it's a great job for you. Whatever it is you do like, you'll find it.

Let's say you're into trees. Someone gave me a book once about the 50 greatest trees of the world. I had been cities where eight of them were. You can find whatever it is you want, the world opens to you in others way that doesn't have much to do with flying.

When I was working on the book, there were days where it was nice to be at home with a cup of tea writing about the flight to Cape Town two weeks ago, or this walk I did in Singapore. So, I guess I like leaving and coming home.

What's the no. 1 tech innovation that's really changed your job since you started?

Vanhoenacker: This is the biggest one [takes out an iPad]. So there used to be a library on the plane; it was literally called "library" with a card listing all of the documents we had on board. There were charts of all over the world, all the technical documents and all the legal documents. And about a year ago they began moving that all to iPads. My understanding is the economics behind it, the cost case for it, is simply based on saving fuel.


The flight simulator hall at the British Airways Global Learning Academy, where Vanhoenacker trains twice a year.

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Because an iPad weighs less than a stack of books?

Vanhoenacker: Yeah, the manuals would have been this long [stretches out his arms] and each was as big as a telephone book. [The iPad ] has really changed our job. It's so much easier to bookmark things. In the old days, the manuals would have been behind us, so we had to get up and open them like we were at a bookcase and take it out. We're also issued with backup batteries, though there is an electrical outlet in the cockpit.

Do you have a favorite place to go?

Vanhoenacker: San Francisco is everybody's favorite, I would say. That's no longer on the 747 schedule; the [Airbus] A380 folks have nicked that from us. Cape Town is probably my favorite of our current destinations. It's so nice. The weather is beautiful, the scenery is beautiful, the food is amazing. The crew is always in a good mood. It's also such an epic journey in the fact that it was built as a waystation for ships going around the Cape of Good Hope. To fly across all of Africa, to take off from here in the evening, have dinner, and then have breakfast over the skeleton coast of Namibia, and come into Cape Town. And there's no jet lag.

Coming back to Europe from the West Coast [of the US] is something I find hard. Most people find time changes are harder going east than west. I think the most obvious reason is that most people find it easier to stay up late then get up early.

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Do you have a favorite sight from the air or a favorite part of the world to fly over?

Vanhoenacker: Many long-haul pilots would probably say that Greenland is the most amazing thing we see. The combination of snowcapped mountains, glaciers and the dazzling blue ocean that surrounds it all is like nowhere else. And of course, it's something we witness on great circle routes between London and Phoenix or Los Angeles, say -- places that couldn't be farther from Greenland. So it's a good reminder of the truly planetary scale that long-haul airliners operate on as a matter of course.

My favorite approach is probably to Heathrow, at least when the wind is from the west, in which case we'll fly over central London on our way to the airport. The Thames makes it really easy for even first-time visitors to orient themselves and pick out the sights -- from Canary Wharf to Kew Gardens and everything in between. Passengers on both sides get amazing views of the city, but the best bet is to sit on the right (where first officers sit, incidentally).

I should also add how much I like to fly at night. I love to see the lights of cities below, and to wonder about the occasional lights we see over nearly-empty deserts or the tundra, for example. And then, of course, we look up, and see so many stars, auroras and meteors in the sky above. It's one of the great privileges of the job, and I'm never surprised when a colleague tells me they're an amateur astronomer.

Is there an airport you fly to that's particularly challenging?

Vanhoenacker: I'd say that each airport we fly to has its own combination of challenges (and rewards) for pilots. These typically relate to the terrain around the airport, the weather that's most common there, and how busy the traffic environment is. At a large airline with a global network, you can be flying into a clear and bright summer morning in Cape Town one week, and then into snowy weather on the east coast of the USA the next week, which keeps the job interesting! The challenges also change over your career, as you learn from your senior colleagues and new destinations are added to the network. For example, Heathrow is a busy airport, one of the busiest that many pilots will ever fly to. When I first started flying there, it took a little while to get used to the pace of the radio communications. Now, of course, it feels like home.

Does it ever feel like just work?

Vanhoenacker: Occasionally. I've occasionally been away for Christmas or New Year's. There are some days where you'd just rather be at home. After I have a couple of weeks off, I get back to work and walk in and think I can't believe I'm allowed to do this. I'm such a geek for anything airplane-related, there's still a 7-year-old in me. Especially when I walk around a plane and look up at it, I think "I'm going to fly this to Sao Paulo tonight." It's kind of childlike excitement.

I get a lot of emails from people who have read the book. Some want to become pilots, either they're young people or older people in other professions. There are quite a few architects, for some reason. I don't know what that connection would be. But I also get emails from retired pilots, and the emails go on and on. They tell me these stories about this night they flew into Dubai, the night they took their wife to Singapore for their 30th anniversary. You know, they're just wild stories about a job they love. I don't know what I'll feel like when I retire, but I think when you look back on your day-to-day job satisfaction, the evidence is to me is that most people are pretty happy.

Was flying the 747 always your goal?

Vanhoenacker: Yes. It wasn't the reason I became a pilot. One of the people in my cadet course, she didn't want to become a pilot. She wanted to become a 747 pilot. It was that specific. I wasn't as attached to it, but it was definitely the plane I was in love with when I was a kid.

Why was that?

Vanhoenacker: It just looks amazing. I kind of speculate in the book about why it looks so good. If you describe it to someone, you'd say it's this great big plane with a perfect bump in the front. That doesn't necessarily sound good, but it looks good. I've speculated that it has something to do with the fact that it looks like a bird. The lead 747 designer was fascinated with birds as a kid. It's an icon. It opened the idea of long-haul travel to the middle class in a way that it wasn't before.

What would you like to fly next?

Vanhoenacker: I like the 787, actually. I've been on it a few times as a passenger. The 787 has these really big windows and a much lower cabin altitude so there's more humidity. And the flight deck looks like the Starship Enterprise; it's even slicker than the A380. If you're a fan of clean design, you'll see the contrast.

For someone who doesn't love flying and doesn't hate it, what are your top couple of tips to make the experience better?

Vanhoenacker: Well, one is, and I know it might sound kind of silly, is to get there early. Go through security, get your bottle of water, and watch the planes. I'm not a big fan of shopping so I tend to go straight to the [Heathrow Terminal 5] B and C gates where there are fewer shops and much bigger windows. Those satellite terminals are also very quiet with very tall windows. They were designed to help people reconnect to the air show that's going on all around them. You can look and think, "Wow, that plane is going to take me to Rio tonight."

I know people like the aisle seat so they can get up, but the window is seat is the best place to make the most of a flight. The moving map is another way to take in the scale of a journey and think about it. And then if you can get a book about your destination and the history of that city -- like a travel book as opposed to a guidebook -- it's a nice way to remember how lucky we are to be able to travel this way.