Pilots like to say that the most dangerous part of flying is the drive to the airport. This is, of course, completely delusional (as any actuary will tell you, flying light aircraft is many times riskier than driving). But never mind: flying is a cool sport, and it’s also one of the best driver-training tools of all time.
I realized this a few weeks ago as I headed out to my gliding club in the green countryside west of the city. As I merged on to the expressway, I started looking for a car to follow (it improves fuel economy and offers the police a sacrificial lamb). Unfortunately, this can be an exercise in frustration, since many drivers are too erratic to follow – their speed rises and falls like the stock market, and they dart between lanes like not-very-bright terriers chasing a ball.
But I lucked out this time. Ahead of me in the right lane was an Audi sedan that was doing the exact speed I wanted. I settled in a few car lengths behind, and set my cruise control to match the Audi’s pace. But I knew it probably wouldn’t last.
And yet it did – 10 minutes later, I was still behind the Audi, and I hadn’t touched my brakes or cruise control once. There was a fair bit of traffic, but the Audi driver was planning ahead, making perfectly timed lane changes that kept our speed constant – my speedometer needle was frozen in position, as if it were painted on to the dial.
The Audi driver had chosen a perfect speed. We were over the official limit, but we were in step with the traffic flow, and there were plenty of faster cars – the police would have much bigger fish to fry than us.
Half an hour later, the Audi and I were still cruising together, our positions locked in perfect formation, as if we were a pair of low-flying jets in an air show. Now my exit was coming up. The Audi’s blinker came on – he was taking the exit too. The driver didn’t touch the brakes. Instead, he backed off the throttle slightly and let aerodynamic drag slow his car. As we arced smoothly through the turn, it dawned on me – this guy was a pilot. Turned out I was right – when the turn-off to the gliding club came, the Audi took it too.
Many of the best drivers I’ve ever met were also fliers – like my dad’s buddy Punchy Payne, who flew F-86 Sabre jets for the Canadian military, and raced Porsches on the weekend. Or my friend Matt, a glider pilot who can drive virtually any car quickly without crashing (at least so far).
Racing legend Mario Andretti is a pilot. So were Formula One world champions Jim Clark and Graham Hill.
In the flying world, a superb pilot is known as a “good stick.” And the qualities that make good sticks also seem to produce excellent car drivers. Last year, I went down to the Charlotte Motor Speedway for the NASCAR All-Star race, where I met many of the current drivers, plus racing legends like Richard Petty and David Pearson. A lot of them were also pilots.
“I like my airplane,” said Pearson. “It’s like a car, but even faster.”
So what is it about flying that makes you a better driver?
It starts with physics. When I began flying lessons back in the 1970s, I had to take a months-long ground school where we studied everything from hydraulics to force vectors and aerodynamics. We had to calculate an airplane’s stalling speed at different bank angles, and learn what airspeed produced the best glide. We studied stoichiometric efficiency (how much fuel should be mixed into the engine’s air flow for optimum combustion) and learned how to position passengers and cargo for safe weight distribution.
Learning to drive a car is different, and most of the drivers I’ve met have little understanding of the forces that act on their car. When I told a friend that his front-wheel-drive car was understeering because he was applying too much power in turns, he had no idea what I was talking about. I once had a driver tell me that the best way to achieve peak fuel efficiency is to drive fast, since it minimizes the time you spend on the road.
Had he taken pilot training, he would have learned that aerodynamic drag increases as the square of velocity, gradually turning the air into a wall as you go faster. (When you accelerate from 50 km/h to 100, the drag doesn’t double – it quadruples.)
So much for the going-faster theory of fuel consumption. I thought of that science-impaired driver this weekend as I flew a glider over the Ontario countryside. Just like a car, my glider had gained energy from internal combustion – a powered airplane had towed me up to 1,000 metres above the ground. Now that energy was mine to spend. The key was speed management and efficient turns – just like in a car. Sharp turns cost energy. So does flying or driving fast.
Unlike a car, I didn’t have an engine, so I had to plan my path carefully to arrive back at the airport with enough height to plan a good landing, then glide down to the runway at the correct speed – too slow was bad, but so was too fast.
As I approached the ground, I remembered a day at the race track last year when I drove with three great drivers in a row – Formula car champ Dave Empringham, Le Mans winner Scott Maxwell and ex-Porsche racer Rick Bye. All of them drove with deceptive smoothness – even as we came up on a turn at 260 km/h, it didn’t feel that fast, because they were running a perfect line, balancing the car’s grip against the forces of lateral acceleration that were trying to chuck us into a concrete wall.
Their techniques mirrored those used by great pilots. They kept their eyes aimed at the spot they were trying to go, and they moved the wheel smoothly, avoiding jerky inputs that would overload the tires. They managed energy. They thought ahead. We were flying on the road. You can learn physics on the ground, or in the sky. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. But either way, it counts.
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Editor's note: An earlier version of this online story contained incorrect information about the rate at which aerodynamic drag increases. This online version has been corrected.