Why We Fly

by Ironsides

When we first start flying there is a certain magic that is impossible to describe. For hours on end you dream of getting to the field for your next lesson. You go through a lot of heartbreak earning your wings, but the magic keeps you going. Then one day, the magic goes away – not suddenly – but one day you go to the field and you sense nothing special. For many, the magic never comes back, but it can be sensed when you teach others how to fly. The thoughts that follow were written shortly after completing the Wings Program.

Sooner or later we have to answer the questions. Why do we fly? Why do we spend all that time building fragile aircraft that will probably be pulverized sooner rather than later? Why do some of us go out there in the most atrocious weather conditions to tempt fate? Why do we always have to have that one last flight that ends up in disaster? Why do we always push the envelope? Why, why and why?

Since the earliest days we have looked skyward because flight is inherently beautiful and intriguing. From our science, we know how a wing produces lift, but there is still a sense of magic about flight. Let’s face it, when you watch a Boeing 747 coming in to land, all your instincts tell you that those tons of airplane just shouldn’t be floating there in thin air.

The flight of some birds is more attractive or interesting to us than others. The soaring, effortless grace of an albatross is pure poetry in motion and is emulated by our long winged, floating gliders. Closer to home, who among us cannot admire the skill of the hawk as it milks the thermals for altitude and gracefully patrols the sky? What else in nature can compare to the majestic sight of a large flock of Canada Geese in full vee formation honking out their joy? The unbelievable low-level aerobatics of martins hunting insects on the wing are beyond any RC fingers to control while the wizardry of the hummingbird is unmatched in the model world, even by the helicopter enthusiasts. By in large, we tend to find bigger birds more interesting and our models follow that pattern. Are the models our way of coming as close as we can to fulfill one of our oldest dreams – to fly?

There is something intrinsically beautiful about watching a model aircraft in flight. It is the movement, the graceful motion as the aircraft transitions from one attitude to another in a three-dimensional dance that attracts and holds the eye. Like a figure skater, we spend hundreds of hours practising those movements so that they flow smoothly from one to the other. Away from the field, we often stop what we are doing and with our hands and minds trace out those aerial steps – to the puzzlement of spouses and friends who cannot see the model flying in our imagination. In John Gillespie Magee Jr.’s words, “We have slipped the surly bonds of earth.”

The flying field can either be an unbearably hot and sun-seared or a windy, wet and bone-chilling place to be – so why spend any time there? One might begin to suspect that there is something almost prehistoric about flying clubs. Pilots go there not just to fly, but to bond – a throwback to the club-wielding hunting group huddled in a cave swapping stories about the last mammoth hunt? Members will often drop by the flight line when they have no intention of flying. They just need to get their fix of a pint of prop wash.

Contrary to the Hollywood image, pilots are not strong, silent types. They talk. Flying is a lot of jaw boning – the exchange of very arcane knowledge. To the outsider, the topics would seem incredibly dull. We talk about the much the same things over and over, except each time it is somehow quite different and interesting. There is no such thing as a boring conversation in the pits. But why? Is it because it is a re-enactment of the hunting group yarn telling? Do we hang on every word because we might learn something that will save our model? Or is it more basic? The flying field is a great leveller, an almost perfect democracy. Do we talk because it is a non-threatening environment?

There is an element of risk in our flying. We launch a perfectly functioning model and time after time take the chance of ruining it. We don’t have to prove anything to anybody once it has flown properly. Have you noticed that once you have mastered a manoeuvre, you just cannot leave well enough alone? We are forever flying when the wind is just too mean and tricky. We are our own worst enemies. We simply cannot just stick to the basics, we have to keep pushing the edge. Taking off from dry land is not enough, we also like the challenge of lifting off from water and snow. We seem to crave the excitement that a little bit of danger brings.

Challenge seems to be a key element. Other people don’t challenge us, we challenge ourselves. Nobody on the flight line would dream of daring a fellow flyer to prove that he can fly – it just isn’t necessary. Sooner or later, the urge will overcome a pilot, and he will taxi up to the line and take off. It is remarkably similar to an infant bird in the act of fledging. What incredible drive causes a chick to leave the safety of the nest and to throw itself headlong to almost certain destruction? Why fly when you might die?

It takes a certain type of character to become a pilot. Setting aside the physical requirements for good vision and hand/eye co-ordination, there is a need for a mind set that is different. Have you ever noticed how many people quit in the training phase? Something goes wrong and they lose the faith. Those who have earned their wings know that things are going to go very badly one day and they have learned to accept the consequences and to keep going. When a seasoned pilot crashes and smashes, there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that he will come back again. We just do.

Most of us live pretty dull existences. But, out at the field we can escape the drudgery for a while and play. It is childlike, carefree, unabashed fun. There are no medals, no prizes, just an inner glow. We fly – we tempt fate – we conquer the elements and defy gravity. Why? Just so that we can do it all over again. It brings some zest into our lives.

We become keen observers of weather. In our everyday jobs, we are forever glancing at the sky trying to judge the wind speed and figuring out what it would be like if we were out there flying. We start to observe weather patterns that we would never have noticed before. Equally, we challenge the weather. We fly when it is too windy, too cold and too wet. Why do we fly when we are so uncomfortable? We certainly stop most other activities – like mowing the lawn? Is this also the Neanderthal in us trying to reconnect with nature?

Is flying a sport or a hobby? For most of us, those who build and fly, it is both. Those who meld a box of balsa, assorted bits of wire, plastic and metal into a model airplane are engaging in the time-honoured hobby of model building. The fact that the model is an aircraft, as opposed to a sailing ship in a bottle, is irrelevant at this point. BUT, once the enthusiast actually commits the model to the sky, then it is a sport. It is not quite an athletic activity, but it has elements of lifting, bending, carrying, co-ordinating and of course praying (and other “..ings”) that tend to make it very similar to sports such as fishing. Speaking of fishing, note the similarity – the endless talk, the getting away from it all, the long hours, the varying weather conditions – some nuts even try to ice fish, just like frozen-finger flyers who simply don’t know when the season is over.

Why do we get so scared when we fly? Flying is very much safer than driving to the field. You stand a very good chance of being badly hurt just transporting your model to and from the field, but the chance of personal injury if your model crashes is almost non-existent. Do we somehow transfer our soul to the aircraft such that we tremble when we have a close call? Can you remember that horrible feeling when you flew one into the dirt big time? There is the nauseating crunch of splintering balsa, the slow-motion crumpling of the thing of beauty into a twisted mess, the initial shock, then a numbness and afterwards a period of grieving. We get very attached to our planes.

After all is said and done, it could be allowed that all that is going on is that we are out there reliving our childhood playing with expensive toys. The actual flying takes total concentration and shuts out the daily problems and annoyances – total relief from the cares of everyday life. Fifteen minutes in the air can leave you totally exhausted and yet as satisfied as though you had just won Olympic Gold. However, it is not just the flying, there is much more to it and that something extra is why we keep coming back for more. But, just try to explain it to someone who has never flown a radio-controlled aircraft in an RC Club setting.

Let’s face it, we fly, but we don’t exactly know why.