How to fly a plane (safely): Erica Wagner rediscovers flight's wonder with a BA pilot

Mark Vanhoenacker's Skyfaring reminds us of the magic of aviation.

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Our cruising altitude will be 3,000 feet. That’s not very high for an aircraft that usually gets up to ten times that, but we are just going to circle the airport and come back down to land. The cockpit of a 747-400 is on the upper deck: we’re nearly nine metres off the ground. Mark Vanhoenacker, the British Airways pilot who is sitting to my right in the first officer’s seat, while I sit on his left in the captain’s chair, tells me that we’ll be light today, too. “We’re going to have a take-off weight of 250 tonnes,” he says in his calm American voice. “If you were taking off from Singapore, you’d have a weight of 390 or even 395 tonnes.” Do the maths and you’ll see just how much fuel it takes to get a fully loaded 747 from Asia to Heathrow, a distance of just under 7,000 miles.

Vanhoenacker guides me through the checklist. This crucial aspect of aviation safety has become a model in other fields, most noticeably medicine; it’s a call-and-response exercise in which every aspect of the plane’s readiness to fly, or land, or do almost anything else, is verified by both the pilot flying the plane and the pilot monitoring the flight. As Vanhoenacker puts it in his book, Skyfaring: “The division... can be likened to that on an American-style road trip with someone you get on well with. Only one of you drives. The other checks and gives directions, changes the music or temperature, passes snacks and drinks, searches in a guidebook or on a smartphone for the best diner in the town ahead, calls the motel to see if they still have a room.”

We’re ready to go; the doors are closed; the flight deck door is locked; the seat belt light in the cabin has been switched on. “Start the engines,” Vanhoenacker says, and guides me to the four switches – they have to be pulled out before you turn them, so they can’t be switched on accidentally – which set the Rolls-Royce engines in motion.

But we don’t taxi out along the runway because there is no runway. We are not in a cockpit but in one of British Airways’s 17 full-motion simulators at Heathrow. Each costs £10m and is “Zero Flight Time” approved: that means a pilot can go straight from qualifying in a simulator to flying a real aircraft carrying passengers. Vanhoenacker, who is wearing his dark blue uniform, as BA pilots always do in the simulator because this should be no different from flight, sets the power we need for take-off on the auto-throttle. The runway lies ahead of me. I know I’m just in a big box, but still my heart rate is up. “You’re going to keep it over the centre line as best you can, and then when I say ‘rotate’, you’re going to pull the nose up about that much.” He tilts his hand in the air, just a little, so that the fingers are less than an inch higher than the wrist.” He looks at me and smiles. “Ready to roll?”

I’ve got one hand on the control column – it looks like a steering wheel with the top cut out – and one hand on the power, a set of levers to my right. “Feet on the pedals,” Vanhoenacker says. “We’re going to release the brakes.” I tap my feet forward and we start to move. I can feel the ground beneath the wheels; the cabin trembles; I tell myself, firmly, You are not in an airplane but the words mean nothing. The engines roar. “Rotate!” he says. “A little more...” And I’d swear we were above west London in the dusk, rising and rising.

To sit perched in the cockpit of this iconic aircraft, even in a simulator, is to be given a visceral reminder of the wonder of flight. That can seem elusive these days when we are all packed into cramped rows of seats, as airports transform themselves into hubs that combine so many of the downsides of modern life, from security screening to the relentless onslaught of consumerism. But wonder diminishes by habituation, too; flying used to be rare and splendid. In Live and Let Die, James Bond flies to New York in a BOAC Stratocruiser, the plane that might be called the grandaddy of the 747; BOAC was BA’s former name. The first line of Ian Fleming’s novel runs: “There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent.” Sixty years ago, when the novel was published, the mere prospect of hopping on a plane was beyond the reach of most people.

Mark Vanhoenacker – his father was born in West Flanders – grew up in Massachusetts. He was always fascinated by planes, but although he had a few flying lessons as a teenager, a life in flight seemed in the realm of comic books and adventure stories. He embarked on a career first as an academic, studying African history, and then as a management consultant. But finally the pull of the skies became too great and he applied for BA’s training programme.

He was 29 years old when he made his first commercial flight and began taking the Airbus A320 on short-haul runs around Europe. That’s one of the things that makes his story striking; most people imagine you have to start young to become a pilot. Twenty-nine, he says now, “is later than most, but not as late as some. People start in their forties, and if you can do the aptitude testing and get through the two years’ training – then go for it.” He benefited from a version of what BA now calls its Future Pilot Programme, which essentially pays for the training. Before such schemes, learning to fly was entirely self-funded, which could cost up to £100,000. The competition is stiff: there are about 4,500 applications for 100 places each year.

After our “flight”, we walk into a little office tucked into the sprawling campus – hidden from passengers’ eyes – of BA’s hub at Heathrow. The bland room is distinguished by a desk arranged and decorated to mimic the 747’s instrument panel, and used as a teaching aid for pilots in training. The book in no way reads like an advertisement for the airline for which Vanhoenacker flies; BA isn’t mentioned at all. “I guess I wanted to make something universal about the experience of flying,” he says.

Vanhoenacker is careful in his speech, almost hesitant, where his writing is fluid and elegant. He was inspired by books such as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight, or Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. He mentions the Blixen specially because, although it isn’t strictly a book about flight, it is particularly lyrical on the subject. She writes: “In the air you are taken into the full freedom of the three dimensions; after long ages of exile and dreams the homesick heart throws itself into the arms of space.” Skyfaring acquaints the reader with the technical details of what keeps us in the air when we fly and how pilots know where they are, yet never loses sight of how beautiful it is to soar above the clouds. And the book is full of information that is wonderful in its simplicity. “The wingspan of a 747 is not far short of twice the distance covered by the first flight at Kitty Hawk,” Vanhoenacker writes. It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come in a very short span of time.

Vanhoenacker’s caution when he speaks is perhaps not surprising; he says his job is not “flying planes”, but “flying planes safely”. That day’s Metro carries images of TransAsia Airways Flight 235, which careened into a river in Taipei shortly after take-off on 4 February, killing 43 people. A few weeks later, an Airbus A320 crashes in the French Alps, killing all 150 passengers. And yet, despite these tragedies, flying is much safer than getting into a car. More than three billion people used commercial flights in 2013, according to the most recent figures; 81 accidents took place during that time and there were 210 fatalities. The World Health Organisation reported over 1.2 million road traffic deaths in 2010.

Among airline pilots, who gets to fly where, and when, is based on seniority. “The company will construct months of work and we bid for what we want; the people who have been in the company longer will get first choice. You can pick where you want to go, or you can pick your days off,” Vanhoenacker says. “It’s hard to get both.” It sounds as if this could make life pretty complicated. He smiles. “I never kept a diary until I started flying. Many short-haul pilots will print out their schedule and wear it in their hat – you’ll still see people looking into their hat, and that’s why! We can also swap trips. Your aunt’s on vacation in Miami, so you’ll say, ‘Can I have your Miami and you can have my Lagos?’” Flying planes isn’t just his job: it remains his passion. I tell him I flew to New York not long ago on a new 787; we discuss the beauty of its big windows, the configuration of the seats. The cockpit, he tells me, looks completely futuristic, “like the Starship Enterprise”.

In the simulator, we bring the 747 back down to earth. We come out of autopilot; when that happens the cabin fills with a loud, whooping noise, an alert that we’re back in FD (flight director) mode. But then the windscreen goes dark as the visuals we need rebuild, and I feel my stomach lurch because my body has been quite sure that we’re moving, even though we’re not.

As we come nearer the ground, a loud, male voice announces our height in feet above the earth’s surface: “ONE THOUSAND!... FIVE HUNDRED!” And then “FIFTY ABOVE!” – which means not 50 feet above the ground, but 50 feet before the next call, which comes in a determined, female voice, like that of a very efficient headmistress. “DE-CIDE!” she says, and so you must decide whether you’re going to land, or “go around”. This is the last moment you can safely make that call.

“Land!” I say, with what I hope is authority. “ONE HUNDRED! FIFTY!” I hear, and then I pull back on the wheel as instructed, just a little – too much, and I’d head right up in the air again. With a thump we’re on the ground, the runway racing beneath us, the noise of the engines, of the air, loud around us. To come to a full stop, I stand on my toes to brake fully. I’ve swayed a little more along the runway than I’d have liked; but when Vanhoenacker tells me my landing was very good – well, it’s hard to recall when I last felt so pleased about anything. 

“Skyfaring: a Journey With a Pilot” by Mark Vanhoenacker is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99) on 2 April

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge