Absolute Altitude book review

Absolute Altitude

Around the world in 80 flights

In Absolute Altitude the author, Martin Buckley, answers the question he poses in the preface: “do you think someone could hitch-hike by plane? How far do you think they’d get?”  The answer is all the way around the world.

Weaving in the history of aviation, Buckley tells the story of his extraordinary journey.  Starting with his PPL training in Canada, he rides a night mail flight to remote Scottish islands (“much more fun than a 747”), goes crop dusting (“top dressing”) in mountainous New Zealand, smuggles home-distilled liquor in Corsica (the label – “illegal manufacture guaranteed” – makes the customs officer laugh), rides with missionaries in Kenya (the flight begins with prayers), bums a ride on a Learjet crossing the Atlantic and ends up flying a paramotor in Wales.

The whole book has a strong whiff of nostalgia.  Written before September 11th 2001, many of his innocent scams would be impossible now.  “I was even on occasion lent shirts and nice golden epaulettes so we could … pass me off as a bona fide commercial pilot.”  In another example, anyone who has made their first solo will recognize the description of his own. “How bright the moment seems.”

A former BBC journalist, Buckley writes well, especially when talking about his own experiences.  He keeps the pace up and has a good eye for people and places.  For instance, his description of his flying school captures the mood and the moment:  the instructors “were a motley crowd of British, Irish, French and Canadians … all dreaming of the cockpit of a 747.  Some days it felt like a scene from the Battle of Britain.  Half a dozen young pilots sprawling lazily on the lawns, smoking and joking in the late-summer sunshine.”  The historical interludes are readable but not as compelling.

Self-deprecating about his own flying skills, he reserves his greatest respect for hands-on stick-and-rudder pilots.  Contrast his fumbling efforts at landing – “I had a fondness for putting in too much flap, or forgetting the flap altogether” – with his description of a balloonist’s perfect landing: “to our astonishment Greg brought us precisely alongside the other, now flat, balloon and laid the enormous basked to earth without so much as a bump” or a beta approach in a Pilatus Porter: “the plane tipped forward until the threshold of the runway filled the windscreen – then we plummeted … At the last possible moment, the plane abruptly leveled, touched down and stopped dead.” He is able to capture their skill without drowning in technical details.  Indeed, the book can be read by a non-aviator with as much pleasure as a propeller-head.

The book is an exploration of the “fraternity, almost a cult” of aviation.  It is about our obsession with flight expressed in the history of its pioneers, ancient legends and, of course, his own trip.  It is fundamentally about “that dimension of aviation that is so wholly unrelated to transport.”  Buckley does not succeed in explaining it but he captures it beautifully on every page.

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  1. Day Ten: Books and DVDs for pilots - January 6, 2010

    […] Absolute Altitude. The story of a British journalist who decided to try to blag his way around the world in the cockpits of different aircraft. Sadly, I don

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