Flying a plane is hard, but it's amazing that we get to do it at all (Q&A) - CNET

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British Airways pilot Mark Vanhoenacker talks about his new book, How to Land a Plane, and what it takes a return a Boeing 747 to the ground.

Three years ago, I had one my best days ever when I got to fly a Boeing 747 over London. OK, I was in a simulator at the time, but as someone who loves flying I didn't care. My host that day was Mark Vanhoenacker, a senior first officer for British Airways. He'd just published his book, Skyfaring, a beautifully-written and sharply observant reflection on human flight and the elegant machines that take us into the air.

His second book, How to Land a Plane, celebrates his airborne passion just as sincerely, but in a more technical way. Published in the UK in 2017 and last month in the US, How To Land A Plane tells you how to do just that using casual and often funny language combined with cool illustrations. He explains the mass of controls in the cockpit and how to use them and the general forces of flight itself. As he tells me below, it's not meant to be an instruction manual for amateur pilots -- you still need to go to flight school -- but it is a helpful guide on how a pilot like him manages to park a commercial airliner and the hundreds people aboard on a runway

Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed. All questions were asked via email.british-airways-flight-simulator-26.jpg

Vanhoenacker stands near one of his beloved 747s at London's Heathrow Airport in 2016.Andrew Hoyle/CNET how-to-land-a-plane

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Q: Why did you write this book? What do you want the reader to know?
Vanhoenacker: In How to Land a Plane, my goal was to write a concise and hopefully entertaining guide to how planes work. And how pilots work, too. How do planes fly, in the most basic sense? How do pilots control an aircraft, and what are the basic tools and instruments that help them do so? 

Then, at the end of a flight, how are pilots, and planes, guided home? I hope these are interesting questions for frequent fliers, armchair travelers, or, indeed, potential future pilots. In this book I try to show that the landing, not the takeoff, is the best way to answer them.

In your last book, Skyfaring, you write about flight on an emotional and spiritual level -- how it feels to soar above the Earth and how magical it is that we get to do it all. This book is more literal about how piloting works, but did you have some of the same intentions in mind when writing it ... to help readers appreciate, as you call it, "wonder flight?"
Vanhoenacker: I've loved airplanes for as long as I can remember. Even as a little kid, I wanted to become a pilot. I'm sure I was drawn to flying for the same reasons that explain why flying has been such an old and recurring dream for our species. Flying, moving easily in three dimensions, is a fundamental joy. british-airways-flight-simulator-11.jpg

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Vanhoenacker directs me to take off in a Boeing 747 simulator at the British Airways Learning Academy near London.Andrew Hoyle/CNET

As I got older, I separately fell in love with the idea of where planes can take us, aside from just up. For a while, I spent as much time pondering maps and my globe as I did airplanes themselves. It's so easy to forget how extraordinary it would have seemed, to previous generations, that we can, first of all, see our homes, communities and environment from above; and then additionally, we can travel to pretty much any city or region on our planet within 24 hours or so. Those two separate phenomena both remain utterly remarkable to me. Aren't they, as much or even more so than the internet, what would most amaze our ancestors?

You can access that wonder emotionally and spiritually, as you say, and that's what I tried to do in Skyfaring. In How to Land a Plane, I wanted to talk about some of the technical details behind it all-taking the "god is in the detail" approach to a subject that I hope we can appreciate both emotionally and technically.

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Flying a 747 simulator (pictures)

I could see some people reading this book and thinking that piloting a plane isn't all that hard. But isn't it hard? 
Vanhoenacker: Yes, it's hard. Spoiler alert: I say in the book's first few pages that you definitely cannot learn to land a plane by reading a book. It's a physical skill, above all. I really encourage anyone with an interest in flying -- not just those thinking of making a career out of it -- to take some professional flying lessons. You'd be surprised at how many flight schools there are, how close your home might be to one, and how affordable, and amazing, an introductory lesson can be.

Nevertheless, thinking about landing is a great way to think about all the science, procedures, and technical wizardry that go into flying. How do you land a plane? There's a nice "imperative" oomph to that idea, one that so many movies have made the most of, and that I thought would provide a natural energy to the book. It's the perfect way to frame what's happening when we fly. As I write in How to Land a Plane, landing to more challenging than taking off. It's a more useful talent, was well. You have to land a plane eventually, but no one has to take off.

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So if I were suddenly asked to land a plane, I couldn't use it as an instruction manual?
Vanhoenacker: No. How to Land a Plane is a way to introduce the basics of flying in a fun and accessible manner, and I'd be happy to know, too, if it encourages readers to take a professional flying lesson, which is incredibly fascinating even if you're not planning on becoming a pilot. Also, in the situation in which the book opens, I specifically say that the automatic flight systems aren't available.

Where's the fun in that?

Anyway, it's additionally worth pointing out that autopilots and related systems, such as flight directors and auto-throttles, aren't nearly as simple to operate as many travelers might think. A lot of our simulator training focuses on the correct engagement, monitoring, and disengagement of these systems. It's more accurate to say that we control the aircraft "through" the autopilot systems. In the foggiest weather, for example, we are required to land the plane automatically, and I think every pilot would agree that an automatic landing is a lot more work than just landing it ourselves.

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You write that one of your flight instructors told you that the Boeing 747, one of the largest airliners ever, is "just a big Cessna." What did he mean by that?
Vanhoenacker: I love that line. He meant that the fundamentals of flying are the same, whether you're flying a small, propeller-driven plane from a municipal strip, or landing a 280-ton 747 at London's Heathrow Airport. In the book, I focus above all on these shared fundamentals. For example, the famous "four forces" (thrust, drag, lift, and weight), the three ways a plane's spatial orientation can change (pitch, yaw, and roll), the basic instruments and some of the decision-making tools that apply to every pilot on every aircraft, whether it's a Cessna or an Airbus A380.

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Following an A380 through rural France

When you talk to nonpilots about your job, what is one of the biggest misconceptions they have about flying a plane?
Vanhoenacker: Here're a few! 1) Pilots typically don't just fly "one" route. Rather, we fly to a variety of places, and that's determined by which aircraft types fly where, and by our seniority. 2) While one pilot is the captain, with overall legal responsibility for the flight, from one flight to another the two pilots alternate between actually flying the plane; and conducting all the other tasks, such as radio communications, fuel checks, etc. Each of those two roles has its own challenges and rewards. And this, incidentally, is one of the ways in which a 747 is definitely not a Cessna. Airliners are designed to be flown by two pilots, each performing a distinct role. 3) Jet lag is only a problem if you're trying to adjust to local time, as most tourists and business travelers wish to do, or must do. But if you're flying home 24 or 48 hours later, and have no obligations (like a meeting) at a destination, other than to rest, you might find it easier to remain on your home time zone, or on something in between. That's the situation for crew.

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What do you think a nervous flyer could get out of your book?
Vanhoenacker: I get a lot of e-mails from readers of my first book who are nervous fliers, who've found it comforting to know more about what pilots do, as well as to have a sense of how elaborate our training and procedures (such as the rigorous use of checklists) are. I hope How to Land a Plane delivers more of that most basic information. I also hope travelers will take a greater interest in flying, and that as a result we'll have more visitors to the cockpit before or after a flight -- that's when we can reassure travelers most directly.

I'd also encourage nervous fliers to tell their cabin crew about their feelings -- you definitely won't be the first person to do so, and so they'll be experienced in providing reassurance. They, unlike pilots who are in the cockpit, can also answer many questions about specific situations as they arise (for example, about the changing noises that the engines make).

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Sometimes passengers ask me about the relationship between pilots and autopilots. Typically, I'll answer in terms of our training. In addition to the years of training required to become a pilot, and then the months-long course to get a license to fly a specific type of aircraft, we also spend two days in a full-motion, multi-million dollar flight simulator every six months for our entire careers, practicing old and new scenarios under the supervision of a specialized training pilot. We're evaluated on manual flying skills, of course, but also on our use of the automatic flight systems. They're both a part of why flying is such a safe way to travel.

The autopilot and its related systems are best understood as tools that pilots use to fly and to manage workloads. For example, you might think about the cruise control in your car. Yes, it will maintain your target speed. But you alone, as the driver, need to adjust that target speed for changes in the road conditions, weather, traffic, lighting, speed limits, etc. You also need to be aware of how to engage it, how to disengage it, and how to decide when you might want to do either. Of course, the systems we have on airplanes are much more complex, and are able to handle many other parameters, in all three dimensions. But I think that as semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles become more commonplace on our roads, the aviation community will be asked to share what it's learned over many decades.

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You're no longer flying the Boeing 747, which you said was the great joys of your life. What was it like to have to say goodbye to that airplane?
Vanhoenacker: That was a sad farewell for me. The 747 was the plane I'd dreamed of flying when I was a kid. One of my colleagues once told me that when she was a child, she didn't want to be a pilot. She wanted specifically to be a 747 pilot. The 747 is the plane that changed the world, and even now it is a shorthand for a certain perspective and sense of wonder about both flying and the travel opportunities that only flying makes accessible. Joni Mitchell sang about the 747 ... I loved flying it. I still love to see its iconic silhouette crossing against the clouds or standing in front of the windows of a terminal building, like the great ship that it is.

Also, most pilots love their jobs, and each time you say goodbye to an airplane, you'll probably never fly again, it means that another milestone is passed. The iconic 747 made that more poignant for me.

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You're currently flying the much newer Boeing 787 Dreamliner? Has it been a big adjustment? 
Vanhoenacker: Yes. The world literally looks different from the 787, because as pilots we're seated so much lower -- there's only one deck on the 787, obviously, whereas on the 747 the cockpit is upstairs. But there's a lot of commonality, too, and many systems, such as the flight management computers, operate in a similar manner. Meanwhile the 787's smaller size, and the single deck, means we have more opportunities to interact with our customers. The flight deck is also quieter, and the environment feels more comfortable. The air on the 787 has a higher level of humidity and it's also denser (or, in aviation lingo, we have a lower "cabin altitude," e.g. a cabin altitude of 5,000 feet has air similar to that which you'd experience on a mountain of that height). Incidentally, both of these advantages -- the higher humidity and the lower cabin altitude -- are made possible by the 787's unique composite structure.

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How have cockpits and the technology behind flying changed since you first became a pilot 17 years ago? 
Vanhoenacker: Well, a lot of those changes came about even though the aircraft themselves didn't change. For example, when I started flying the 747, we carried enormous paper technical manuals and charts all over the world. There are actual bookshelves in the 747's cockpit, and a checklist to confirm that nothing is missing from what's officially termed the "aircraft library." But a few years ago, nearly all of that documentation was put onto iPads, which have a lot of advantages from a user's perspective, such as making updates easier and allowing us to bookmark documents. And of course, the iPad, compared to a paper library, saves weight and therefore fuel. Now those bookshelves are almost empty -- a reminder of a previous age in aviation.

Still, the 787 has some entirely new features. The different air quality I mentioned before is one of them. The other remarkable thing for me is the Head Up Display, a technology that is more commonly associated with fighter jets. The HUD consists of a projector hidden above our heads, and a piece of glass that is extended between our eyes and the windscreen. A lot of our critical data airspeed, altitude, attitude, etc. is projected onto the glass. So, we see this information while we are looking out at the world, rather than down at our "usual" instrument panel (which is still in place).

Of course, you can think of an innovation like the HUD in two ways. In one sense, these glowing numbers and figures, apparently floating against the sky or the outside world, would seem like nothing less than magic to the Wright Brothers or Saint-Exupéry. On the other hand, the "instruments" we're seeing in the HUD are essentially those that at least several generations of pilots would instantly recognize. A few years ago, I took someone into the flight simulator who had not flown since just after World War II. After just a few minutes of explanation, he did a great job, flying a textbook approach and landing in a cockpit he'd never sat in before. It was a nice reminder to me of the basics that are at the heart of the profession, and of the history of the profession too.

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The first aircraft you flew was the Airbus A320, which uses a sidestick instead of a control column. When I used one in an Airbus simulator a couple of years ago, it looked like something out of a fighter jet. What was it like to fly a plane like that?
Vanhoenacker: I really liked my four years flying the A320, and its siblings the A319 and A321. The sidestick controller is one of the biggest differences between Airbus and Boeing jets. In practice, you get used to the sidestick very quickly and my sense is that pilots who have flown both appreciate them both. One advantage of the sidestick -- one of those small things that ends up mattering more to your daily life than you might think it would -- is that because there's no control column in front of you, you can have a slide-out table. On the ground and in the cruise, opening out that table makes it easier to tap away on your iPad. And frankly, it also makes eating meals a lot easier.

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What are your predictions for the next decade of commercial flight?
Vanhoenacker: That's a tough question. I think one of the real innovations of the last few years has been the introduction of next-generation, long-range, twin-engine airliners like the 787. In terms of fuel consumption, the "ballpark" figure we use for a 787-9 is around five metric tons per hour. The equivalent figure for the 747 is around ten tons. Now, a 747 typically carries a greater payload than a 787-but not twice as much.

These efficient aircraft save money on existing routes, and also allow a whole new set of routes to open up, the "long, thin" ones that might not have been viable on older aircraft. For example, looking at the British Airways 787's summer schedule from London, I can choose to bid for trips to cities like Nashville; Durban, South Africa; Hyderabad, India; Charleston, South Carolina; and Calgary, Canada. The world is even more accessible than I imagined it to be, when I was a kid looking at my model planes and my desktop globe. I expect that's a trend that will continue, thanks not just to the 787 but also other aircraft like the Airbus A350 (which, by the way, has the most amazing-looking winglets, a reminder of the old pilot's adage, "if it looks right, it'll fly right").

I also hope that the trend toward a greater appreciation of the wonder of flight will continue. I've tried to share my enthusiasm in my writing and in my interactions with customers. But a lot of the recent enthusiasm for flying comes down to technology, whether it's the new, wider windows on airplanes like the 787, or all the tools that travelers have now to capture and share their photos and experiences in the air, online. Once again, the journey itself is becoming an important part of the experience of travel, at least for some. I hope that continues. 

On that note, if you've got a great window seat shot, or a question about flying that I can try to address in my column for the Financial Times, I'd love to see it. I'm at markvanhoenacker.com or, on Twitter, @markv747.

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