High above London, Tokyo and Cairo, the language of the cockpit is technical, obscure, geeky – and irresistibly romantic

Excerpt an Aeon essay by first officerMark Vanhoenacker

The day I first flew in the cockpit of an airliner, I fell in love with the sights, of course, but also the sounds. I wasn’t a pilot then, not yet. I was a passenger on a British Airways Boeing 747, on a flight from Tokyo to London. I was a business traveller in those days, a management consultant and accustomed to flying, but still a big kid when it came to anything to do with airplanes.

I asked one of the flight attendants if I could visit the cockpit, as I always did before the attacks of 11 September 2001. Soon I was heading up to meet the pilots in ‘the pointy end’ (their term) for a long chat somewhere over Russia. Later in the flight, the pilots – one of whom I’d later fly with as a pilot myself, in that exact same 747 – invited me back to the cockpit for the arrival at Heathrow.

Strapped by a five-point harness into a seat behind the grey-haired captain, I was dumbstruck by the sight of the North Sea, and the Thames Estuary, and then of London itself, its sprawling, miniaturised perfections all the more miraculous after so many long hours over the forests and tundra of Siberia. As we descended over St Paul’s and the bridges and parks, all I could think was that this was London, the ordinary, present hour of an ancient city, and that we were coming to it from Tokyo – Tokyo! – and from the sky.

I fell in love with what I saw from the airplane that day. But I was equally struck by the clipped, technical majesty of the words I heard through the expensive-looking noise-cancelling headset the pilots had handed to me. The pilots spoke of ‘localisers’ and ‘glideslopes’ and ‘veerefs plus five’ (VREF, I now know, is a baseline landing speed). On the radio they talked, in terms I could barely understand, to a series of laconic folks who identified themselves as ‘Maastricht Control’ and ‘London Centre’ and the all-powerful-sounding ‘Heathrow Director’. And the plane itself spoke out loud as we neared the ground, announcing our heights and then, all of a sudden, asking us in a brisk, clear voice, to ‘DECIDE.’

Decide what, I wondered? To become a pilot, I figured. And so a couple of years after first hearing the language of the sky, I was a pilot myself, listening to a busy frequency on the ground at Heathrow, waiting for a gap in which to ask the controller for permission to start our engines.

Thirteen years later, I still love my job, enough to have a book about my work. And I still love the language of the sky.

Read the complete essay on AEON