All week, Mark Vanhoenacker will be sharing stories about piloting and planes excerpted from his book Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot. Out now from Knopf.
Occasionally one airplane catches the imagination of pilots and cabin crew, or even of the general public. More than a few colleagues told me they decided to learn to fly only because they wished to fly the 747. I am never surprised when a colleague’s email address contains some version of those famous numbers. I occasionally go to an exercise class near the hotel I stay at in Vancouver—exercise is sometimes the best antidote to long-haul air travel, whether because it resets the body’s clock or only tires you out into sleeping better, I do not know—and the instructor will often sing out, at the start of a pose in which we are lying on our stomachs but lifting all our limbs: “Lift your arms, lift your shoulders, like a 747 taking off.”
It’s often assumed that an airline pilot can fly any kind of airliner. Pilots typically take a set of exams, both in classrooms and in the air in small planes, to obtain a series of licenses that culminate in a general air transport license. Then we obtain a type rating, a separate license to fly one specific kind of aircraft. When we switch to a new aircraft, the new type rating replaces the old one, and usually we are no longer permitted to fly the previous type. Some pilots fly a dozen types or more in their career. I may fly only three—the smaller, short-haul Airbus A320 series airliner I started on, the Boeing 747-400, and probably one new type, between the 747’s retirement and my own.
The bond between a pilot and his or her current type of airplane is hard to pin down. Language is perhaps the best analogy. Indeed each aircraft type or family has its language, or at least its own dialect, and analogous devices and procedures often have different names on different aircraft. Acquiring these words and their correct usage is a significant part of the work we put into a new type rating. In a phenomenon called type reversion, a pilot inadvertently refers to a term or procedure from a previous aircraft type. There is a friendly rivalry between the pilots of Boeing and Airbus aircraft, which in addition to everything else are two competing realms of language. On the Airbus, the fully stowed position of the flaps is called flaps zero. On the 747, the same position is called flaps up. Once, soon after I switched from Airbus to Boeing, flying with a senior captain, I mistakenly asked him to select flaps zero. Before moving the flaps, he turned to me, with a clearing of the throat and a smile—from over the glasses resting halfway down his nose—that said, What are these youngsters coming to?
We spend much of each day, or night, inside our aircraft type; when we sit down, it will feel like a second home. Our connection to it will even color our experience of travel as a passenger. When I fly as a passenger on the Airbus, it has the familiarity that alienates, like walking past a restaurant where you broke up with someone long ago. In contrast, when I fly on a 747 as a passenger I feel a peculiar comfort or satisfaction that is something more than knowing what the various noises mean.
Emotionally, a pilot’s relationship to his or her type is perhaps similar to how some people respond to a prized car they have owned for a decade or two. But different cars are not as different to drive as different airliners are to fly, nor do they exclude other cars from your driving life.
Pilots tend to like powerful planes. I’ve often heard complaints about one long-retired aircraft type that pilots felt was underpowered; the joke was that it only ever got airborne because the Earth eventually curved away beneath it. In contrast, every pilot I’ve talked to who has flown the Boeing 757 has mentioned, unprompted, how powerful its engines are. But equally often I hear wide-eyed pilots marvel at the efficiency of a new airplane, after they contrast the amount of fuel burned between an older and a newer, more efficient aircraft on the same route.
The differences in the cruising speeds of airliners are small. Still, some airplanes and their pilots spend their hours in the sky habitually overtaking others. It feels good—how could it not?—when you are pulling ahead of other aircraft even while maintaining your most efficient speed.
Other differences between aircraft are so small in the context of such Earth-crossing, mile-vanquishing vessels that it feels ungrateful to dwell on them. Airbus cockpits are beloved for their foldout tables, an enormous enhancement to the pilot’s quality of life when completing paperwork or a meal; I also found the cup holders and sun visors were more intuitively located on the Airbus. Some planes have windows that open, a blessed feature when you’re dining in the cockpit between flights and wish to feel the breeze on your face, especially if you have flown from somewhere cold to somewhere warm and have only three-quarters of an hour until you must fly home to winter. Some airplanes have a bathroom inside the cockpit; for this reason the 747 is often called the ensuite fleet. (When I started to fly 747s, the cockpit lavatory, a standard airplane fitting, contained a most unlikely feature: a baby changing table that was only later removed to save weight.) Many long-haul planes have pilot bunks. On some airplanes you have to pass through the passenger cabin to reach the bunks or lavatories; on others, like the 747, you need never leave the cockpit area and can move freely between the bunk and the bathroom in your pajamas.
The best proof that the temperature outside is really as polar as the cockpit gauges indicate is the floor of the cockpit. It can be like ice. Some aircraft have foot heaters, and some do not. When I flew Airbus jets that were not equipped with them—my understanding is that they are an optional extra, like those a car salesman might offer to throw in during the last minutes of negotiations—I would sometimes wear heavy socks for unusually long flights. I would be in a hotel in Bucharest, Romania, in the baking height of a continental summer, thinking of the sphere of cold above even the warmest times and places as I pulled ski socks onto my feet. The 747 has foot heaters. The frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean looks better—everything looks better—when your feet are warm.
Aside from foot heaters, new technology plays a perhaps unexpected role in the preferences of pilots. When I worked in management consulting, I had the sense that everyone wanted the most advanced tools—laptops, projectors, phones. Planes, like computers and smartphones, differ in the level of technology they incorporate. Some pilots are early adopters, gravitating to the newest equipment. But it’s quite common for pilots to strongly prefer older aircraft. One reason is that in such aircraft, in which fewer tasks are automated or computerized, many pilots feel closer to the simplest mechanics of flying and an older ideal of their profession. Each new generation of aircraft lays down another stratum of technological sediment between the modern pilot and the Wright brothers, and the pace of technology is such that some pilots may fear that once they leave a more traditional aircraft type, they will never again have a chance to exercise a certain set of skills in the same way.
Some pilots joke that the appearance of their plane does not matter to them, because they are looking out from the inside of it. Still, the aesthetic qualities of airplanes are a regular topic of contemplation and conversation. Pilots might say that one airliner looks right, or that another looks—vaguely, but definitely—wrong. Or that one plane looks as though the engineers kept sticking bits on, seeking a frustratingly elusive aerodynamic solution, each design amendment then requiring another; whereas other planes look good from the start. Pilots will often remark on a new plane when they see it for the first time, puzzling over whether it looks awkward only because it’s new, or because its appearance is genuinely unfortunate. We may ask an older colleague how an old and much-beloved plane looked to them when it first landed decades ago.
Recently I was taxiing a 747 past a portion of the tarmac at San Francisco that was closed off for reconstruction. More than a dozen airport workers, though presumably already accustomed to the sight of airplanes at close range, nevertheless put down their tools to photograph us. On one summer evening when I was flying near sunset over the Netherlands, a different aircraft type passed over us, and the other pilot let out an aerial catcall to our 747, a low whistle over the radio, then: “I hope you have a lovely day on that lovely aircraft.”
Partisans often say that the 747 jet “just looks right.” I agree, but this isn’t necessarily what you’d think of a plane with such an unnatural bump (a design that moved the cockpit upward and back, to permit an up‑swinging cargo door to be fitted to the nose). The lines of the 747 may be so satisfying not despite this nosebump but because of it. Perhaps it recalls a natural relationship—that of the head of a bird, a swan perhaps, to a long body and wide wings. Joseph Sutter, the 747’s lead designer, was drawn to birds as a child—eagles, hawks, ospreys. He might be pleased to know that his achievement has come full circle, that a writer on the wildlife of Virginia has described the great blue heron as the “747 of the swamp.”
When visitors clutching the latest smartphones come into the cockpit of the 747, they are often so shocked by its relative antiquity that they can’t help but comment on it. Many pilots take such a reaction as a compliment, and joke that “it’s a classic” or “it’s steam-driven but we like it that way,” while resting their fingers affectionately on the four stilled thrust levers.
* * *
If the now-familiar form of an airplane still holds the modern eye, it’s perhaps because it holds opposites.
The routineness of air travel today, the sometimes weary casualness with which many passengers fly, contradicts the physical grace of airliners. Yet in science fiction movies, when the music rises and we glimpse a craft that is more poetry than machine, a shimmering vessel perhaps without an obvious means of propulsion, it is the cultural and visual lines of airplanes that filmmakers call upon, rather than actual spacecraft, most of which have no need to be aerodynamic and are therefore unattractive.
There is also the size of an airliner, set against its breathtaking reserve of speed. A large airliner, the consummate elider of place, itself possesses the scale of a structure or enclosure we might work in or inhabit. Sutter, the 747 designer, remarked that his airplane was “a place, not a conveyance,” one that an architectural magazine would describe as the most interesting edifice of the 1960s and that the architect Norman Foster would name the 20th-century building he admired most. Yet this building, this place, moves nearly as fast as sound itself.
Also in Skyfaring:
Excerpted from Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker. Copyright © 2015 by Mark Vanhoenacker. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Listen to Julia Turner talk to Mark Vanhoenacker on Slate’s Working podcast: