Airline pilot and author of Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot, Mark Vanhoenacker writes about the soundtrack to his flying in this exclusive essay.
When I was around 12 years old and only dreaming of becoming an airline pilot, I got my first portable cassette player and headphones and began to choose music for myself. One afternoon in the kitchen of our house in rural Massachusetts, maybe as I unpacked that very Walkman, I asked my older brother if airline pilots were allowed to listen to music while they flew. He answered that he wasn’t sure, but he thought not.
I do not remember wondering again about how music might relate to a pilot’s career for a long time. But as a teenager, whenever I flew occasionally, I would listen to my cassette or disc player for as long as the flight or the batteries lasted, hunting for songs that matched my thoughts or mood as well as the view.
In my late 20s my dream came true when I became an airline pilot. I now fly the 747 from Heathrow to major cities around the world. My brother, of course, was right about pilots and music. Though surgeons may listen to their choice of music while working, music is a rare sound in a commercial cockpit, if it’s heard at all. At work I do not listen to Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports”, or Max Richter’s wonderful “Written on the Sky”, or Iron & Wine’s cover of “Such Great Heights”, the lyrics of which (‘They will see us waving from such great heights, ‘Come down now,’ they’ll say…”) my partner wrote on a card for me, early in our relationship. Sometimes, a pilot’s own choice of music might be played when an airplane is parked at the gate, especially if there are hours until departure and no one else is on board. Occasionally, too, I will listen to music on my breaks, if I am resting but not sleeping, but for this sky music I am in a windowless bunk.
When I fly as a passenger, my friends laugh when I ask for a window seat. “You have the best window seat when you’re at work,” they say. But the opportunity to listen to music as the world turns past is a privilege of passengers, not pilots.
Sometimes now when I am sitting in the window seat with my headphones in place, I wonder how this ability to arrange wings and portable music, these two technologies of elevation and transcendence, would strike my distant ancestors. Many people have the opportunity to sit by a high window for a few hours of their life, I’d tell them, and to watch the most extraordinary things pass across it: icy peaks, shining oceans, and the tawny waves of deserts rolling away to the horizon; archipelagos of cloud, the purified light of our star, or of many stars; the illuminated creases of civilisation on the night face of the world. And we are free to choose the music that accompanies the procession of all of these across the windowpane.
Airplanes and songs both take us from one place to another, through new places and feelings, and through those we have already experienced, but did not know how to link. A song and an airplane continue through time and through difference. When I am a passenger in a car, I often remember something I was first struck by as a child sitting behind my parents in the rear seat: the streaming effect of power lines along the road, between the poles that march past the window. Now, the sight of them suggests aircraft contrails to me, or a musical staff or stave. But many of the things I see from the sky—the line of the wing itself, the rivers, mountain ranges, cloudbanks and coastlines, perhaps above all railways and roads—provide just such pleasingly literal glimpses of rhythm threading the land.
Very occasionally a radio station will break through on an air-traffic frequency. The sky realms of airplanes and music are fittingly close neighbours. An FM station’s frequency might be 105 MHz; typical air frequencies start only a little higher, around 118 MHz. When I was learning to fly, near Phoenix, I sometimes flew near a prominent mountain south of the city on which there are many radio masts, dotted with red warning lights for aircraft like mine. If I flew close enough, music would occasionally seep across the electromagnetic border into the headset I was wearing. It was jarring to hear music where music was not meant to be, and I understood this transgression as a function of the land, the mountain forest of blinking masts, that I approached in the geography of the sky.
For many years, of course, the use of music players was restricted at certain times of the flight. Those rules made me sad, and the window seat meant less to me during that time. I’m glad the rules are changing again. Glad for myself, but also for young passengers, maybe future pilots themselves, who will once again be able to find their own music for the turning world.
Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot, Mark Vanhoenacker (Chatto and Windus) is out now.
This piece was first featured on summerofpenguin.com, a month-long celebration of stories and ideas on the London Underground’s WIFI network in partnership with TFL and Virgin Media. So if you happen to be travelling by Tube this summer, be sure to read a story on us.