I’m lucky enough to have experienced what might have been the sweet spot of airline travel. I started flying — well, being flown — back when DC-3s were semi-pressurized and loud as all hell, and though I was young enough to be captured by the excitement of it all, I wouldn’t have hung in there if things hadn’t improved. And boy did they improve: Good cabin pressure, longer hauls, lots of attentive service, and casual trips up to the flight deck for a chat with the crew. The thrill was still there and to it was added the luxury of comfort and specialness. Then, as we know, the vice of capitalism tightened this and that until inch by inch travel by air was reduced to the level experienced on crowded commuter buses.
The good side to this deterioration is the democratization of air travel, of course. Everyone flies now because everyone can afford to, more or less. No longer is it so special that half the cabin consists of first time flyers or tyros who applaud safe landings. And sadly, the cockpit is sealed off so that no one can any longer see what “that man behind the curtain” is in fact doing.
I might wish for the return of the good old days — or, better, the re-invention of lighter than air travel, something slower, airier, more scenic, yet still amid the clouds — though I’m sure, economic democrat that I am willy nilly, I wouldn’t be able to afford it if the great airships did in fact make a comeback, just as I can’t afford first class (a.k.a. the good old days). Or, instead of pining and whining, I can seek out what romance still remains in our ability to fly, albeit in sealed sardine tins. To help me — and I hope you, as well — I turn to good writing, today’s case in point being an excerpt from Mark Vanhoenacker’s relatively recent book, Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot.
Vanhoenacker is a senior pilot flying British Airways 747-400s. This excerpt was beautifully laid out by the New York Times in a special version of their Opinion series. And the writing is both grounded and lyrical. If you think you’re jaded with air travel, imagine how it must be for a pilot for whom it’s a day (and night) job. Yet Vanhoenacker rises above this, so to speak, and in so doing reminds us all to find and value the wonders in our work, to re-see the things to which we’ve become habituated.
Now, I know that more reading might not be on to top of your end-of-the-week agenda, even when the prose is as good as Captain Vanhoenacker’s. So here are a couple of links to flight related images to provide you with quick amusement. The first is a somewhat interactive picture of a 747 cockpit’s controls, in case you want to, you know, learn how to fly this Friday evening. The second is even more . . . extreme: It’s a portfolio of photos of an insanely intricate model of a Boeing 777 built entirely out of manila folders. Yes, that’s right. Manila folders.