Souls on Board
What it’s like to fly strangers across oceans.
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.
Pilots’ interactions with passengers are limited compared to those of the cabin crew, and so, too, are our understandings of the human weight of the journeys we make together. Pilots of bigger planes are most disadvantaged. Large planes may hold more passengers, but the pilots will probably see fewer of them. On my first flight on the 747 as a pilot I walked onto an empty jet and went upstairs to the cockpit. Three-quarters of a busy hour later one of our colleagues on the ground told us that boarding was complete. She took her signed paperwork, shook our hands, and walked out of the cockpit, closing the door behind her. Of the 330 passengers on board, I had not seen even one of them.
There are exceptions. There are passenger visits to the cockpit before or after a flight, and not just by children. If you are interested, there is no reason not to ask. Occasionally pilots might be too busy before a flight, but afterward there is almost always time. Parents often take pictures of their children in one of the pilot’s seats, and no parent has yet declined my offer to take a picture of them in the seat, too.
But it is the flight attendants who will interact with so many people, from so many cultures, on board. When combined with the hours spent in more cities than almost anyone else on Earth will visit—more, even, than many pilots, who will be confined to the destinations served by their sole current aircraft type—it is hard to think of a profession that offers a broader view of humanity.
Occasionally a passenger becomes ill on a plane. In such situations, again it is the flight attendants, rather than the pilots, who make one of the deepest possible connections, in an often lifesaving reminder of the early links between nurses and flight attendants. (The Iowa-born Ellen Church, hired as the first female flight attendant in 1930, was a registered nurse, as were many of the first women who followed her, until the demands of World War II called many nurses elsewhere.) Pilots are involved in such medical situations only indirectly—flying faster, or calling for advice, or considering the option of landing before the destination. The calls for medical advice go via satellite to a central office where doctors evaluate patients on planes and boats in the most remote locations all around the world; virtual medicine at its most necessary. Occasionally the cabin crew seeks a doctor or nurse from among the passengers. Doctors are frequent travelers; I have never been on a long-haul flight on which we needed a doctor but couldn’t find one.
A friend of mine who is an airline captain in the United States told me about his early flying days, when he flew small planes for whomever would pay him. Often he—alone, late at night—was tasked with flying a body, with flying someone home who had died while far away from it. This was in the time when banks always returned cashed personal checks to the person who wrote them, and so sometimes he would fly solo through the night with a cargo of one body and several bags of cashed checks. I remembered this story the first time I flew a plane with human remains listed on our paperwork. The additional, perhaps archetypal, sadness of dying abroad is still somehow present even in an age when someone who does so is likely to be repatriated. We do not have a name, or any other details, and perhaps nothing better symbolizes the connections and disconnections of the modern world, that such an important act should be so anonymous to those charged with it.
The Slate staff’s questions about flying answered by British Airways pilot Mark Vanhoenacker.
Once I was in the cockpit of a flight about to depart, when an official car drove straight up to the aircraft, its lights flashing. The driver brought up to the cockpit what looked like a picnic cooler, containing, he told us, human corneas for transplant. The act was as anonymous as the carriage of human remains. We would never know anything of the donor or of the recipient and our role in the gift was entirely incidental. But since then, whenever I’ve confronted the idea of organ donation, on a driver’s license application or when my parents died, I’ve considered that flight and the persons for whom the corneas were destined, where they are, and how their sight is. I remember that we carefully strapped the box down in the cockpit, made our best speed for London.
Among the many passengers I carry, occasionally I will know one. To fly a friend or family member feels peculiar when it is time to make announcements, to know that one person in the cabin will hear my voice differently, that one person will hear my voice at all. And, they report afterward, the announcements sound equally curious to them. It is the same when friends see me in my uniform, when they are staying with me and I am about to leave for work or have only just returned. Their eyes skip between the face they know and the visual shorthand of my uniform.
Once on a flight, I realized that a neighbor was among the passengers. She didn’t know I was one of the pilots. I went downstairs to say hello. I was surprised to find her in a seat over the Atlantic on a 747, rather than on the staircase of our building. Her expression, too, jumped from a blink of confusion to a smile, as I switched from the identically uniformed pilot she knew nothing of, to the neighbor she had so often cooked for.
Occasionally an airline pilot flies an empty plane. Such flights without passengers are routine for cargo aircraft, of course, but that is their purpose. To fly a passenger plane that has no passengers feels unnatural. It occurs rarely, when weather disruption has left an aircraft at the wrong airport or when it needs to be moved to or from a maintenance base, for example. I have flown an empty airliner only a handful of times. Even before departure, the idea that no passengers will join us is discouraging. The ground staff may shrug when they meet us on such days. Their work is, of course, much easier without passengers, but they do not appear to like it, either.
Flights with no passengers are often flights with no cabin crew either, and so one of the pilots must help close the door on the empty and silent main deck, before heading upstairs to join their colleagues in the cockpit. Opening or closing an aircraft door safely is not entirely straightforward, and until my first flight on an empty aircraft I had never actually opened or closed a 747 door other than during annual training exercises, practicing with flight attendants on an aircraft mock‑up, on a door to nowhere. Takeoff on an empty plane is different, too. The jet feels unnaturally light. The absence of passengers is measured in tens of tons, a rare reminder not only of the size of airliners, but of the physicality, the take-this‑up‑there mechanics of flight.
On an empty flight it is a pilot who must walk through the cabin to conduct the routine safety checks that are normally performed by the cabin crew. On the 747, this means a long and lonely walk away from my one or two colleagues in the cockpit, downstairs and all the way back, past hundreds of empty seats that may be dressed and ready—magazines, toothbrushes, and headsets laid out—for the passengers that are not there.
* * *
I’m on an empty aircraft, flying from San Francisco to London. Among the three pilots I am allocated the first break, and I choose to take it in a comfortable seat in the cabin downstairs, rather than in the cockpit bunk, because I’ve never had the experience of dozing in the entirely untenanted volume of a 747’s passenger cabin. Humming to myself, I prepare a luxuriant bed in the nose of the jet, more a nest really, from the all-but-unlimited supply of blankets and pillows. I think of the vast cells of the cargo holds below me, which are nearly full tonight with the computer and biotechnology equipment and fresh fruit and vegetables that are the fingerprint of the California valleys and industrial parks we overflew on departure. Outside I can see the peaks of the snowcapped Sierra Nevadas streaming past in the gathering dusk. But breaks are short enough without sightseeing, and so I lie down to sleep.
What I hear next is the wake‑up call at the end of my break. On a normal flight this would be a chime in the bunk area triggered remotely by the other pilots, a pleasant enough noise that is nevertheless burned into every long-haul pilot’s brain as the last thing we want to hear interrupting our dreams. On this empty flight, however, my wake‑up call takes the form of a public-address announcement, personalized to me from a colleague in the cockpit, broadcast to the hundreds of empty seats and one lonely pilot who suddenly bolts upright in a corner of the forward cabin.
It takes me much longer than the usual sleepy moment to realize where I am. The plane has been flying toward the night of the north and the east, and so it is dark outside and nearly dark inside as well. Scattered oval pools of cold moonlight spread across the cabin floor and roll gently back and forth over the carpet with the sway of the vessel in the high wind. No curtains are drawn between the cabins, and as I look down the full length of the main deck, only a few splashes of light dot the shadowy abstraction of the aisles.
Another copilot once told me about a flight he made on a large aircraft, undergoing tests, that had no interior features yet—no seats, no galleys, no divisions between cabins or decks. He said that, from inside, you could see the fuselage flex and twist in response to the maneuvers of ordinary flight. There’s no reason I would be able to see this tonight, but in the near-darkness it’s somehow what I’m looking for as I peer down the full length of the empty plane.
I sit in my pajamas on the cabin floor, contemplating for a moment the white noise of the engines and the uninterrupted length of this ghost ship, this peculiar library of numbered and lettered vacancies that we have made and lifted above the low world, that is even now heaving itself forward toward the Arctic.
The phrase souls on board comes to mind, an antiquated term that is still heard in aviation when an air-traffic controller, for example, wishes to know the total number of persons, passengers and crew on an aircraft. Many tens of thousands of passengers and crew have flown on this plane and will fly on it; no one who saw only the map of us, the far-scattered constellation of our present locations on the earth, would ever guess that what we had in common was one airplane. I change out of my pajamas in front of the banks of unshuttered windows, which for once open onto a night no less lonely than that inside the cabin.
I walk upstairs and make my way carefully down the dark aisle of the upper deck. The cockpit door has been open the entire flight—there is no reason to close it tonight—and from the end of the upper-deck cabin the softly glowing cockpit screens are as welcoming as a hearth. I walk past the empty seats and through the open door. The mug of tea my colleagues have made for me is steaming in a cupholder by my seat. As I walk in I say: Guess who? And the captain laughs, because tonight there is no one else in the world it could be.
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: