Life’s Travels: An Adventurous Path to Flight
Issue   |   Fri, 10/23/2015 - 12:51
Sebastien Stouffs
Vanhoenacker’s memoir “Skyfaring” introduces the reader to almost every aspect of flying. He published the book this year and received favorable reviews from critics.

From conducting historical research in Kenya to piloting a Boeing 747 at 35,000 feet above sea level, Mark Vanhoenacker ’96 seems to have done it all. In between all of these endeavors, he has also cultivated a lifelong love of writing. Vanhoenacker has written articles for the New York Times and Slate, among other publications. This year, he published the critically acclaimed memoir “Skyfaring,” a product of his philosophical and poetic vision of flights.

The Dream to Fly

Growing up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Vanhoenacker was absorbed in language and travel starting at a young age. “I was interested in airplanes my whole life — it’s kind of the first thing I can remember being interested in,” he said.

His father was an airplane fanatic, so there were always books related to flying around the house. Vanhoenacker constantly looked forward to his family vacations, wondering how they would travel to their destinations each time.

Vanhoenacker explored his interest in flight both inside of the classroom and out, creating aviation-themed science projects at school and building model airplanes at home. As a teenager, Vanhoenacker even took a few flying lessons, but he never really thought that he would pursue a career as a pilot. As much as he tried to explore his passion, he found his high school to be limiting: “My school was pretty academic, and nobody ever said to me, ‘Hey, you like traveling and languages, did you ever think of becoming a pilot?’” Vanhoenacker is confident he would have become a pilot sooner had he been more exposed to the possibility at a younger age.

While in high school, Vanhoenacker delivered newspapers and spent the income he made on homestay programs in Japan and Mexico.

His summer in Japan proved to be especially influential, and he remains immensely interested in the country to this day. In fact, when he was deciding between Amherst and Williams, he ultimately chose to attend Amherst because of the college’s historic connection to Japan through its relationship with Doshisha University.

Switching Careers

When he arrived at Amherst as a first-year student, Vanhoenacker planned to major in Asian languages and civilizations and to participate in the Doshisha fall exchange program.

Even though he did not end up following through with either of these aspirations, he maintained his interest in Japan by taking a Japanese course every semester and traveling there the summer after his junior year. While at Amherst, Vanhoenacker took full advantage of the open curriculum.

“I had a lot of diverse interests, and I was glad to be at a school where you could follow up on different tracks,” he said. In addition to taking Japanese every semester, Vanhoenacker also often found himself taking a science or a math class. He found deep appreciation for the top-notch teaching at Amherst. “I had a lot of professors that I really admired,” he said. And he cherished the personal connections he formed during his four years at Amherst, and still sees many of his classmates as his closest friends today.

While it was exceedingly difficult for him to choose, Vanhoenacker eventually decided to major in history, finding the field very satisfying for his long-running interests in global culture and language.

During his senior year, he was awarded the prestigious Keasbey Foundation Scholarship, and upon graduation, he matriculated to Cambridge University in order to further his history education. After completing his masters program, Vanhoenacker decided to pursue a Ph.D. When a research project sent him to Kenya he realized he was more excited about flying to Kenya than about archiving its history.

The thought of training to be a pilot crossed Vanhoenacker’s mind often, but he still did not consider it a realistic career choice. Instead, he returned to the United States and began looking for a job that would involve as much travel as possible.

Eventually, Vanhoenacker found what seemed to be the perfect compromise between fulfilling his urge to travel and his realistic need for money: management consulting. He soon found himself flying across the globe and making good use of the language skills he had cultivated before and during his time at Amherst. After three years, however, Vanhoenacker found that even frequent travel could not satisfy his love of flight.

“Luckily, I found out about a scholarship that British Airways offered in which they paid for your flight training in exchange for working at their company for a number of years,” he said.

Vanhoenacker was rejected the first time he applied for the program, but he was not discouraged. The second time he applied, he was accepted, and off he went to explore the sky above the clouds. He first started flying commercially at the age of 29 after completing two career changes in what seems like record time.

Landing the Dream Job

Vanhoenacker is definitely one of the lucky few who can confidently say they’re living their dream job. “I think that my five-year old self would approve of what I’m doing now,” he said.

In addition to enjoying every second of his time that he spends in the air, Vanhoenacker also has a profound appreciation for the airplane. Even though he works in one almost every day, he in no way takes the aircraft for granted.

“The plane is its own kind of wonder,” he said. “In many ways they represent the intersection between safety, commercial viability and technological excellence. And to be working with those machines is pretty remarkable.” He speaks with an almost giddiness present in his voice, making it more than obvious that he is paid to do what he truly loves.

Vanhoenacker’s love of flight extends far beyond the cockpit; it’s an appreciation of the entire airborne experience.

Whenever he flies recreationally, he insists on sitting in the window seat. He finds the experience to be almost cathartic and sees it as having the same appeal as “sitting in a coffee shop and watching the world go by.”

As a passenger, Vanhoenacker has more of an opportunity to observe the landscapes below him as the globe flashes by. The passenger windows of a plane also allow him to see different viewpoints of the journey that he would otherwise miss out on as a pilot. Instead of only being allowed the view of what’s straight ahead in the cockpit, the ordinary traveler Vanhoenacker can see the wings of the plane and the enormous turbines that power its journey through the skies.

Vanhoenacker said one of the main reasons he wrote “Skyfaring” was to remind people that flight is an amazing innovation. “The things that amaze me about being a pilot — that’s what I tried to put into the book,” he said.

In addition to serving as a reminder of the wonders of flight, “Skyfaring” also serves as a sort of introduction to the more technical aspects of aircraft, knowledge that is usually only privy to the pilots themselves.

Vanhoenacker described his novel as his attempt at creating the “textbook for an introductory Amherst course on aviation.” There is no shortage of detail in the book, which describes almost every aspect of flight, from the intricacies of aviation maps to the structural complexities of a plane’s engine. “This book represents what I would show you if you could come up [to the cockpit] during a flight,” he said.

These days, as traveling by flight has become more and more common, people have begun to lose sight of how whimsical the experience truly is. In the last century, we have accomplished what humanity has been dreaming of for the past few millennia, which is amazing.

But it seems as though flight is a victim of its own success sometimes. To this, Vanhoenacker responded by quoting comedian Louis C.K. When flying, “You’re sitting in a chair in the sky! You’re like a Greek myth right now!”