Mark Vanhoenacker is a pilot for British Airways and also the author of the well-reviewed Skyfaring, a book about the human experience of flight. Vanhoenacker recently shared six things he’s learned from being a pilot for the past 15 years.
I came up with the term “place lag” to refer to the way that airliners can essentially teleport us into a moment in a far-off city; getting us there much faster, perhaps, than our own deep sense of place can travel. I could be in a park in London one afternoon, running, or drinking a coffee and chatting to the dog-walkers. Later I’ll go to an airport, meet my colleagues, walk into a cockpit, and take off for Cape Town. I’ll fly over the Pyrenees and Palma and see the lights of Algiers come on at sunset, then sail over the Sahara and the Sahel. I’ll cross the equator, and dawn will come to me as I parallel the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, and finally I’ll see Table Mountain in the distance as I descend to the Mother City.
Then, less than an hour after the long-stilled wheels of the 747 were spun back to life by the sun-beaten surface of an African runway, I’ll be on a bus heading into Cape Town, sitting in rush hour traffic, on an ordinary morning in which, glancing down through the windshield of a nearby car, I’ll see a hand lift a cup of coffee or reach forward to tune the radio. And I’ll think: All this would still be going on if I hadn’t flown here. And that’s equally true of London, and of all the other cities I passed in the long night, that I saw only the lights of. For everyone, and every place, it’s the present.
Mark Vanhoenacker is a Boeing 747-400 pilot for British Airways who also happens to have a wonderful almost lyrical way with words. In this NY Times piece, Vanhoenacker gives an overview of how a London-to-Tokyo flight functions, from take-off & landings to what pilots see in the dark night skies to the determination of altitude.
Three altimeters in the cockpit — two bright digital readouts, and one old-school device with hands that turn like those of a clock — show 31,000 feet.
Yet we know that we are probably not as close to 31,000 feet as these altimeters suggest. We are somewhat lower; or perhaps we are higher. One thing is certain — it would be easy to find a dozen airliners flying over different parts of the world, all of whose altimeters displayed 31,000 feet, none of which are at the same altitude.
How is this possible?
Planes calculate their altitude by measuring air pressure. The air lies most heavily on places that are lowest, the places that have the most air piled above them. A barometric altimeter (baros, meaning weight) equates high air pressure — lots of air weighing down — with low altitude. As a plane climbs, there is less air above it. The altimeter senses less air weight and reports a higher altitude.
There’s a problem, however. Air pressure is not constant. It varies across the Earth. It also varies in each place as time and weather pass.
And I love this bit about the names of the geographic waypoints used to navigate the area around Boston:
Boston has etched a particularly rich constellation onto the heavens above New England. There is PLGRM, of course; CHWDH, LBSTA and CLAWW; GLOWB and HRALD for the city’s newspapers; while SSOXS, FENWY, BAWLL and OUTTT trace the fortunes of the city’s baseball team in long arcs across the stars. There’s a NIMOY waypoint; Leonard was born in Boston.
The piece is adapted from Vanhoenacker’s new book, Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. My dad was a professional pilot for many years1 and I’ve always loved flying, so I’m definitely going to give this a read.