Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot

Free Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker

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Authors: Mark Vanhoenacker
Hudson’s Bay, where Hudson and his son were forced off their boat in a mutiny, after the ship was freed from the ice that had immobilized it through the long winter.
    Also in Canada, listed on our charts is the place called Gjoa Haven, named by Amundsen for his ship, the Gjøa. Amundsen was there to look for the north magnetic pole. In general terms, the closer you get to the magnetic pole, the crazier an ordinary compass becomes, as if you were approaching some fearful, caged creature. Gjoa Haven appears on our maps near the dotted lines that formally designate the Compass Unreliable Area, which is near the Compass Useless Area, further unexpected divisions of the modern sky and the world.

    Some beacons are in places that although famous are geographically incidental; you might not expect them to be elevated on aviation charts in a manner so independent of their historical prominence. Point Reyes is the name of a lighthouse on the Northern California coast; a beacon near it, known by the same name, features on arrivals in San Francisco. On flights over India, we may fly over the beacon of Delhi, and like so many Taj Mahal–bound travelers below, our next stop is Agra. Robben Island, off Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated, was a prison even in the seventeenth century. It’s home, too, to a beacon of the same name, which appears on charts for Cape Town’s airport, and forms part of an often-used arrival pattern.
    I have a Canadian friend from a small town in interior British Columbia. When I first asked where she was from, she laughed and shook her head and said I would not know it; it was a tiny town where they didn’t close the school unless the temperature was colder than minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. But when she said the name of this small place, Williams Lake, it was my turn to smile and say: I know Williams Lake; I gaze on it every few months. There’s a navigation beacon there. When I see her, if I have flown over it recently, I will tell her if it was cloudy, or if I could see her hometown resting between the Rockies and the Coast Range.
    In Japan’s Ibaraki Prefecture is a place called Daigo, a town of some 20,000; foreign pilots will probably not know about its waterfall, but they may know its beacon. Hehlingen is the name of a village in Germany; it is also the name of a beacon sitting in a nearby field, a name that bounces more or less constantly around the skies between Hanover and Berlin, in a range of accents as wide as the world. There are beacons named Split Crow, near Halifax in Nova Scotia; and Old Crow in the Yukon. There is the Rome of southeastern Oregon; and Norway House, which is many flying hours from all the dwellings in Norway. There is Muddy Mountain and Uranium City; Crazy Woman and Vulcan.

    The names of other beacons are more mellifluous. In Scotland I occasionally overfly Machrihanish, a coastal village from where a message was sent to my home state of Massachusetts in the early days of radio; the beacon appears in the cockpit as MAC, spelled out as “Mike Alpha Charlie” by pilots like me, who dare not try the full name in a conversation with a Scottish-accented controller.
    In northern China, set in the tawny elevations of the Gobi Desert not far from the border with Mongolia or the railway that connects the two countries, is the beacon named Eren. In north-central Pakistan, on the west bank of the River Indus, is the city and beacon named Dera Ismail Khan. In Algeria is Bordj Omar Driss, bearing the identifier BOD, which a controller will pronounce as “Bravo Oscar Delta” to a pilot who does not know this small Algerian town, population around 6,000, by its actual name. Russia has many fine beacon names: I like Maksimkin Yar and Novy Vasyugan; my favorite is Naryan-Mar, a coastal town of some 20,000 inhabitants, and a welcome milepost beyond the Arctic Circle.
    An airplane navigates through the sky along a route composed of beacons and waypoints. Waypoints are

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