Musing upon superheroic flight…

We watched Sky High as a family this evening (sort of… Patches and Gleek are another story that maybe sandratayler will tell) and at the end of the show I realized something… flying superheroes all do it wrong.

Flying head-first means your weakest limbs (arms) are protecting your most vital organ (brain) from impact, while your most critical break-point (neck) is craned unnaturally far back to allow you to see where you’re going.

Take a cue from Ender’s Game, heroes. Fly FEET FIRST.

Flying feet first is easier on your neck, you are leading with your strongest limbs (and your cool boots), and if you hit something unexpectedly, your whole BODY is between that brick wall and your precious brain. As a bonus, your cape won’t be whipping your thighs — it’ll be trailing behind you, making you look like you’re twice as big as your really are.

The only drawback is that the comic-book artists who are hired to chronicle your exploits will have to learn a whole new set of stock poses.


44 thoughts on “Musing upon superheroic flight…”

    1. The best plan is to not bother with a cape at all, as was so heartily demonstrated in the Incredibles.

      I’ve seen all three, and I think the description of Sky High as The Incredibles meets Harry Potter is extremely apt.

        1. Watchmen is AWESOME.
          But I can’t recall (and I don’t have my copy of the book on me), did they ever actually mention that they don’t like capes?
          Come to think of it, none of them did have capes (unless the second Nite Owl counts, but that’s more of a cowl than anything, and like I said I don’t have the book on me so I only have memory to go on), but I figured that was more of a… thing…

          In any event, Rorscach (10:30 is too early in the morning for any reasonable person to expect a college student to be up on a sunday, don’t expect me to spell such a complicated name correctly) is the awesomest superhero ever. I may not agree with his politics, but I love that his reason for being WAS politics. Or at least morals. I don’t know. Or maybe I just like that he tortures and kills people. Hard to say. And I can’t even remember much about him!

          Man. Man o man I need to fetch that book next time I go home and bring it here so I can read it.

          At least I’ve got A Feast For Crows coming for me in the mail!
          I’ve been a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire since before it was popular!
          Or maybe I’ve just been a fan of it since after the last book came out, and it’s been so long that nobody has mentioned it, or something. Suffice it to say I was gleefully happy when I started seeing advertisements for A Feast For Crows in The New Yorker. George RR Martin roxorz joor boxorz.

          The end.

          1. To quote from my trade paperback of ‘Watchmen’ (that I actually had within arms reach)

            In particular, the ‘Under the Hood’ exceprt text, at the end of Chapter 2. This is Hollis Mason (aka: The original Night Owl)

            “I experimented with a cloak, remebering how the Shadow would use his cloak to misguide enemy bullets, leading them to shoot at parts of the swirling black mass where his body didn’t happen to be. In practise, however, I found it too unwieldy. I was always tripping over it or getting it caught in things, and so I abandoned it for an outfit that was as streamlined as I could make it.”

  1. I can’t help but think that looks really, really stupid…

    Besides, don’t many many flying superheroes have bones more POWERFUL than STEEL and TWICE as THICK

    1. So? Even steel breaks eventually. The issue isn’t absolute strength, but relative – you’ve got a lot more stronger-than-steel bone before you get to vitals if you go feet first than head first.

      1. More importantly, why worry about how it LOOKS? If you outlive your enemies and outperform your super-friends, you’ll be in style regardless.


  2. One afterthought… all this depends on HOW you fly. What propels you? Obviously if you’ve got rocket-boots, going feet-first isn’t an option unless you wear the boots on your head. Mounting a rocket engine to your head is probably a greater safety risk than flying head-first.

    If you’ve got “magical” flight (e.g. reactionless, non-aerodynamic, non-ballistic), which is like high-speed levitation, then you could fly in ANY position, and streamlining yourself head- or feet-first only matters when you’re shooting for top speed. In which case, flying in a natural standing or sitting position might be the most comfortable.

        1. Sounds like a good place to put some bulletproof armor, anyway. (Even if you’re bulletproof, that damsel-scientist in distress you’re rescuing isn’t!)

  3. Umm, what about the whole ‘seeing where you’re going’ thing?

    “It was a terrible accident. Captain Ultra was flying along, and didn’t see that flagpole jutting out from the side of the building…”

    1. The human body is designed more for looking down than it is for looking up.

      Personally, I think I _am_ in favour of the whole lotus position thing, just because that’s the most casual one. I like superheroes that are casual about their powers. Like Rogue, she’s just like, okay, I’m just gonna take off my glove now, and then I’m going to touch you, and BAM, you lose. Those super heroes that make a big production out of it and go all super-saiyan or somesuch nonsense are lame.

      Of course, I think the ULTIMATE manifestation of this would be a superhero with a flying armchair.
      Come to think of it, that is the awesomest thing I have thought of in weeks.
      Picture it! Old-style silk bathrobe with the pouffy thing under the chin, reclining casually on your armchair, feet up on a red footrest, as you SOAR THROUGH THE AIR TO FIGHT CRIME.
      Maybe that would make a better supervillain than superhero. I dunno.

  4. Funny, whenever I dream of flying [which everyone does at some point apparently] I always dream of zipping along, sitting in the lotus postion, ala’ indian guru style.

    Evidently my subconscious has also thought about this…

    1. Whenever I dream of flying, I’m sitting with my legs tucked under me. Lotus position is the best way to magically fly, plus it looks cool. Or so they tell me in my dreams.

      1. I had a dream once where I was hanging onto a small glider no more than the width of a doorway. I was doing all kinds of stunts with it, flying through hallways, running along walls. I remember thinking to myself, not realizing I was dreaming at the time, “I must be so good at this because I fly in my dreams.”

  5. The main problem of flying feet first, is I think, one of visibility.

    Flying feet first on your back, you will not see anything but sky. As a superhero, you won’t see any crimes going on beneath you, nor will you be prepared for the kryptonite tipped anti-aircraft artillery, SAMs or small arms fire directed your way.

    Flying feet first on your stomach, you can survey the situation below you, but will open yourself up to attacks from above. This could be avoided if you had someone flying as your wingman… err… capeman, but to the best of my knowlege, most superheroes end up flying solo. (Possibly because the local airspace will only support one ego of that size.)

    I think one of the key elements to being a superhero is surely situational awareness. You need to find the bad guys quickly before they can do too much damage. Restricting one’s visibility will not help. Of course, seeing that so many supervillians get the first shot off anyway, perhaps the added protection of flying feet first might be of benefit. Nevertheless, if the superhero doesn’t see where the shot came from the first time, that means the supervillian will get two shots off before being spotted.

    Then of course there’s the public relations angle. Flying head first was good enough for superman, what’s wrong with you? Are you some sort of coward? Add to that the fact that, though you have more protection from flying into walls, as your visibility is now restricted, you’re more likely to fly into walls. This will surely not help your public image. Who’s the police commissioner going to call for first? The superguy who flies around as you’d expect him to, or that wacko non-conformist superguy who flies backwards and splats into buildings all the time?

    And then, of course, there’s the lawsuits. I’m sure all the ambulance chasers would have a much easier time picking apart the image of a superhero in front of a jury who flies feet first into danger.

    1. You’re being ridiculous, Scott. Seriously.

      Stand straight up. Look straight up at the ceiling, and imagine yourself flying in that direction. Neck hurt yet? Yeah, that’s what I thought. When you relax your neck a bit, your vision field shifts, and you see less of what’s above you.

      Now look straight down at the floor. Your spine naturally curves to make it easier. And you can see JUST FINE. The only blind spots (other than straight up, which will be “where you just came from”) are caused by your feet, and you can shift those around. You can even curve MORE, and see stuff coming at your back. For Superman to do that he has to completely blind himself in his direction of travel.

      Okay, the rest of your post was humorous, but it’s still based on a false premise.


      1. Sorry, but for me, craning my neck up to look forward is just about as uncomfortable as it is to look down.

        As you said above, a sitting position would undoubtedly be the Most comfortable and afford you the best situational awareness. But looking forward, with a slight angle of attack to relieve neck strain would be my preferred flight mode.

        At least part of this I think would be because of disorientation. Flying, belly down, feet first means that the world is going by not just feet first but upside down as well. I sure wouldn’t want to arrive at a crime scene to grapple with a supervillain while fighting nausea.

        But, be that as it may, I just thought of something I don’t understand. If flying feet first is safer as you suggest (and I certainly won’t argue as to the crashing into objects portion of your assessment) one has to wonder why cliff divers jump off cliffs head first? Surely, going feet first would help prevent injury? Yet most people diving into water, do so head first unless they’re encumbered by equipment (Scuba, or lifevests or what have you)

        Oh! Waitaminute, now I understand!
        Remember that the center of mass in a human body is in the torso. Just as in an aircraft or rocket, the more farther forward your center of mass, the more stable your flight through the air. Thus, a human body, (or humanoid at any rate) should be more stable flying through the air, head first. Now, instability in flight is useful for maneuverability, (that’s how fighter aircraft are designed). Hmm… This line of thought leads me to help explain capes. By attaching a source of drag to the leading edge of a flying object, it will become less stable in flight. Perhaps capes are an aid to aerial dogfighting?

        However, there is one thing I would count as a real difficulty to flying feet first, and belly down: Acceleration. It’s one thing to be looking at the world flying by upside down and backwards, but add in the need to accelerate in flight (and superheroes certainly do accelerate hard!) and you’re doomed. The blood would be rushing to your head! You’d be flying upside down, backwards, and standing on your head at multiple G’s.

        Sorry, but I don’t think you’re going to be in any shape for a controlled flight that way. Nevermind being able to tackle a supervillian afterwards.

        If Targon’s Toughs start flying around upside down and backwards, I sure hope they’ve got some intertial compensators inside their suits, or you’re going to have a lot of Multispecies Mercencary Barf on your hands…

        1. Cliff divers dive headfirst because (a) it’s more fun, and (b) water forcefully up the nose is no fun at all, and (c) it’s easier to maneuver underwater when one’s facing headfirst. Oh, and (d) if you hit something you’re dead either way, so you want to simply not hit something.

          In training for emergency evacuations of naval vessels, in which one is jumping into the water from five stories in the air, the proper format is to jump feetfirst, with ankles and arms crossed, and one hand holding one’s nose tightly closed. Or so I was told when I was touring one.

          Do fighter pilots have better resistance to G forces in upward turns or downward ones? Also, when superheros accelerate rapidly, are they being pushed from outside their body (or by certain parts of it), or is their blood accelerated with the same force the rest of them is, thereby resulting in no G-force problems at all?

          Finally, Howard, I’ll point out that people generall swim underwater head-first, and don’t seem to have that much trouble seeing where they’re going….

  6. OK… I’ve got to say it.

    As a former pilot who’s seen the damage incurred when an aircraft runs into a bird, the LAST thing I want to risk is getting smacked in the twig and berries by some airborn fowl.

    Then again, I think Magneto had it right. He flew facing forward, standing erect for the most part. Of course, he also had a magnettic field that could somehow block out non-ferrous materials.

    Of course, this is all comics, and has nothing to do with reality. Superpowered folks generally don’t get stiff necks from looking up hour after hour. Of course, neither do midgets, but that’s neither here nor there. 😛


    1. LAST thing I want to risk is getting smacked in the twig and berries by some airborn fowl.

      ::falls out of chair laughing::

      Definate point. 😉

  7. I think the problem is threefold:

    1) Everyone’s thinking in terms of birds, which do fly head-first (sort of), or in terms of jetpacks/rocket-boots, where the pilot obviously has to have the thrust pointed in the opposite direction of travel. It just seems more natural, even if there are no wings or jetpacks involved.

    2) Assuming you’re taking off from a standing position, flying face-first just involves leaning forward after liftoff, while flying feet-first means you have to sort of back up while leaning back, THEN go forward, which is too reminiscent of backing out of a driveway to be very heroic-looking.

    3) As Kelloggs mentioned, Superman started the idea of flying heroes, and he could plow into anything that wasn’t kryptonite without so much as a papercut, so he didn’t have to concern himself with such things. Then everyone else had to copy him to be cool.

    That said, I personally like the idea of “standing” vertically while flying (maybe with arms folded just to be smug about it), a la Magneto or M Bison. Much less of “I’m flying like a plane; my wings are just invisible” and more of “I laugh at gravity and its silly limits.” In fact, all flying dreams I’ve had have me doing just that. (There might be air resistance issues in doing that, though.)

    1. Surely Superman didn’t originally fly at all? He might nowadays but it’s difficult to leap tall buildings with a single bound and travel feet first. Unless you give the ground one heck of a “Glasgow kiss” to start you off up, up and away…

      1. I have some superman cartoons which, according to the copyright date, are from 1917. (The cars are all black Ford model A’s, it’s kind of frightening actually.)

        I’ve watched two episodes. In one his flight is a series of very long jumps (sort of like the Tick only with less property damage). In another he actually flies.

        Up in the air, it’s a bird, it’s a plane…

        Interesting cultural artifacts, really. And $1 at 7-11 because the copyright seems to have expired…

        1. They aren’t the Fleischer Supermans from ’43 made for Paramount, perchance? Public Domain and available in a good few places very cheap….
          but there are some very good versions out there.

          BTW didn’t the Ford A replace the Ford T in ’27?

          1. Considering superman himself wasn’t around in 1917, I didn’t think I was reading the date right. (I checked it again this morning and L is 50, not 5, so it would be 1942.)

            I watched another couple this morning,and in one of the intros it was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to fly higher than the higest plane. (They don’t show superman flying in the entire cartoon, he’s mostly beating up circus animals… Oh wait, he rescues Lois from the trapeeze platform, so once.)

            They did leap tall building in one of the others I watched. The plane bit didn’t even show superman, just a twin-prop airplane…


    2. To take off heroically and fly feet-first from a standing position, think “kung-fu kick”.

      (Actually, now that I think about it, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon probably has some examples of this sort of thing. And all sorts of other martial-arts positions extended into flying.)

  8. Hmmm …

    Tough choice, eh?

    Fly in the classic, George Reeves laying on a box, arms first position:

    Benefits – Looks seriously cool (especially if you let one arm fall back and lead with a fist), seems to be aerodynamic as hell (toes trailing in the jet stream), and provides a good field of vision.

    Determents – Smack into stuff head first (fist first, same difference), cape (if cape there be) gives a serious spanking at Mach 1, and yer entire body is a target from the ground and sky.

    Fly in the HT suggested feet first position:

    Benefits – Smack into stuff feet first, cape (again, if one indulges) flaps back in the jet stream), and neck gets a break by being in a new position.

    Determents – Both toes and head sora kill the entire aerodynamics, making the flyer look a little like a stretched out “u,” serious possibility of a really nasty wedgie at Mach 1, and yer body is still laid out as a nice target.

    Fly in the casual, waiting for a bus, standing position:

    Benefits – Well, no worry about spanking or wedgies, at least, one’s neck is held fairly normally, and yer body is just a dot from above or below.

    Determents – Looks bloody stupid and any position that leads with one’s groin simply cannot be considered a good idea.

    Fly in a seated position, like the little lame prince:

    Crap … see flying in a standing position and add that it’d look incredibly stupid from the ground.

    I think it comes down to one basic consideration: Anyone who is not indestructible, simply should not fly. I mean, flight is pretty cool, but if it’s your only superpower, it’s all but useless! And if one is indestructible, head first is still the coolest way to go.

    1. Re: Hmmm …

      You forgot a few. For instance, you could fly in an upside-down seated position, and dare people to laugh.

      Or you could fly in a sort of spinning crouch, as if you’re doing a “cannonball” into the lake and forgot about gravity mid-jump. (Actually, if you do this, it’s probably because your superpower is such that it’s the only way you can fly. Poor guy.)

      I think that flying in a position that’s sort of like standing but leaning forward at a 45-degree angle or so is probably best. You can tuck your legs up under you if you need to be a smaller target (or, alternately, wear Elf-boots!), and also can easily and quickly rotate to hit something feet-first if you need to. Think “Rolls Royce hood ornament” and you’ll have about the right pose.

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