Imagine a City: A Pilot’s Journey Across the Urban World by Mark Vanhoenacker

“At times, voices come out of the air itself, clear yet far away, traveling through distances that can’t be measured by the scale of human miles,” wrote Charles Lindbergh of his historic flight across the Atlantic. The experience was so unlike anything that humans had known before that he found himself becoming something akin to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transparent eyeball: “My skull is one great eye, seeing everywhere at once.”

In the years that followed, others—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, James Salter—would become similar poets of the air, never forgetting that they were witness to perspectives on the earth (and in the heavens) that had never been previously witnessed. Into their company, a few years ago, soared Mark Vanhoenacker, who flies long-haul British Airways Dreamliner 787s out of London to every corner of the planet.

Born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to a Belgian priest and an American speech therapist, Vanhoenacker dreamed when young of seeing in life the places that gleamed on his illuminated globe. Now, working above the clouds and banking in over massed lights after dark, gliding from one continent to the next, he never takes for granted the magic of passing, as he writes in his latest meditation (quoting Coleridge’s ancient mariner), “like night, from land to land.”

As Imagine a City begins, this not-so-ancient mariner is standing above the lights of Abu Dhabi in his hotel room late at night, thinking back on his boyhood. A little like Italo Calvino, in his fanciful Invisible Cities, he decides to conjure up some of the places he has known, with that almost unique kind of familiarity that comes from visiting them dozens of times, but seldom for more than a couple of days. Kyoto, Cape Town, San Francisco, are the acquaintances that Vanhoenacker treats as friends whom he gets to see every few weeks, but not for long.

What makes this captain of the heavens so appealing is a kind of all-American innocence that helps him savor “the palmistry of lit streets” in Salt Lake City, seen from 38,000 feet above, as eagerly as he devours the poets of Delhi when touching down for 48 hours. Linking the places he flies between through snow, or gates, or the color blue, Vanhoenacker, meticulous enough to offer a 16-page bibliography, seems to have a near-bottomless appetite for fresh sights and guidebook curiosities.

You can learn here that “Jiddah” is said to derive from the Arabic word for grandmother and that the Celsius scale once had water freezing at 100 degrees and boiling at zero; that wristwatches came into being so a pilot could read the time without lifting his hand from the controls; even that Pittsfield, where Melville wrote much of Moby-Dick, is home to Fourth of July festivities that were televised nationally for years as Your Hometown America Parade.

Kyoto, Cape Town, San Francisco, are acquaintances that Mark Vanhoenacker treats as friends whom he gets to see every few weeks, but not for long.

In his first book, Skyfaring, Vanhoenacker gave us the simple rapture of watching the skies fill with color, as seen from a snug cabin that sometimes felt a bit like a jet-age Thoreau’s. In this new work, he plunges deeper into his own past growing up in Pittsfield as a gay man who perhaps always felt a little on the outside of things, seeing them from a different angle.

His autobiographical vignettes are searching and touching, delivered with an affectionate lyricism that brings home to us how his small town has become a kind of anchor in a mobile life and maybe even the place to which he’ll return when he retires. But for me the real distinctness of his work comes from the life he enjoys at cruising altitude, murmuring, “Cairo, Cairo, good evening” after toggling the transmit switch.

I’d never known that pilots are allowed to call collect, from any city on the planet, to get a doctor, or that there’s a waypoint named ISLAM on the flight-management computer so that pilots can tell passengers which direction faces Mecca. Those who steer us along blue skyways order fuel for their next flight while completing the one in hand, we learn, and receive discounted rates on shipping up to 300 kilograms of freight every year. Their friends and relatives, who get to fly standby almost for free, are known as “Klingons.”

As Vanhoenacker describes the golden approach at daybreak to Kuwait, say, he rummages through local writers as well as Americans to find ways to capture the “butterscotch sky” that transfixes him. Once in the broiling desert city, he goes birdwatching and passes on the excitement of seeing Arctic terns and willie wagtails. He tells us how the crown jewels of Iraq were once lost in midair—thanks to a sandstorm above the sea. And as he surveys the “blood-bright light” of flames rising from oil wells on the sands—near the place where the Tigris meets the Euphrates—he offers a perfect image of a modern problem transforming an ancient world.

There’ve been plenty of books about cabin attendants’ adventures as part of a globe-trotting sorority bringing the mile-high club down to earth; Imagine a City is a much more intimate and thoughtful work from a man who, seeing “the small metal plate on which an arrow indicates qibla, the direction of Mecca” in that hotel room in Abu Dhabi, uses it “to estimate the initial direction of the great circle route” that will take him and his big bird back to London as the light comes up again.

Pico Iyer is a columnist for Air Mail. His latest book, The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise, will be published early next year