Wednesday, February 20, 2008

It's a Bird! It's a Plane!

Kids ask a lot of questions and I was pretty observant as a kid so I noticed several things when watching George Reeves' Adventures of Superman.

Superman could fly but he didn't just float away, he took a running start and leaped into the sky. Sometimes it was a long run. I remember one episode where he was inside a suburban house. He ran out the front door, across the yard, turned onto the sidewalk, then jumped into the air.

It was the same when he landed. He didn't float to the ground, he landed with a thump.

There were a couple of times that he did take straight off. When he did that it whipped up a wind that blew stray paper around.

When he was flying it was accompanied by a whooshing sound that could be heard a long way off. Often Lois heard it and had to figure out how to attract Superman's attention.

Put together, this gives us a reasonable model for how Superman flies, something the comic never did. It works if you think of an airplane or missile. It would appear that Superman had a stall speed. He didn't flitter around like Tinkerbell. He had to have forward motion to fly. His running and jumping was similar to a plane getting up airspeed, or at least running to get a kite in the air. When he landed, he couldn't break completely. He lost as much speed as he could by flying and used his legs as super shock absorbers.

I have an interesting explanation for how he actually flew without some sort of propellant. He must have manipulated the air, possibly using a static charge across his skin. That would explain why he needed to be moving in the first place, why he kicked up a windstorm, and why his flight was accompanied by a loud whoosh. It also explains why he couldn't just hover and descend slowly. He had to keep up the amount of air moving past his body and there just wasn't enough when he slowed down. The best example I can think of for this is driving up a muddy hill. If you keep your speed up you can make it but if you slow down you can't get enough traction and you start spinning.

Could Superman carry someone while charged? Yes, as long as they didn't touch anything else. The passenger would gain a static charge but with nothing but air around, there would be no place for the charge to go. As Superman cut his charge in preparation for landing, he would reabsorb it slowly enough that he wouldn't shock his passenger.

I can see two problems with this. Superman didn't always fly in the air. At least once he left the atmosphere to stop an oncoming meteor. He also propelled himself through the water. The meteor I can explain - he reached top speed while in the atmosphere and let inertia carry him the rest of the way. He was only able to deflect the meteor with a collision, not push it away which is consistent. The recoil from striking a huge rock bounced him back to earth.

Flying under water is harder to explain. Maybe he was actually swimming, kicking his feet so fast that it didn't show.

Of course, the real explanations are a lot less interesting. The original plan was to use wires and a flying harness but a wire broke early in the production and Steve Reeves refused to use a flying harness again. When he jumped it was onto an off-screen cushion. When he landed he was swinging on camera from an off-screen bar. The whooshing was a carry-over from the radio show which had to use something to let listeners know when Superman was flying.

The few times that they did use a flying harness they used a fan for the wind. I have no idea why they used it but it adds a nice tie-in with my theory.

Strange how it all worked together to suggest a real means of flight. This is something that none of the other versions of Superman have done.

I'll have more about superhero flight in later posts.

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