Sail Now, Fly (Better) Later

"I'm flying!" says J/35 bowman Bubba Suggs. Photo by Al Schreitmueller

Interested in becoming an airplane pilot some day? Here’s a tip: Learn to sail well first. It will give you a big lift when it comes time to take the stick in an aircraft. No fooling. Annapolis-based Kenneth S. Reightler Jr., a former Navy test pilot and space-shuttle crew member who sailed on the U.S. Naval Academy team before he graduated and went on to flight school, says the two have enough in common that acquiring sailing skills first “definitely gives you a leg up” in learning how to fly.

“Sailing gives you a distinct advantage, not only in becoming an aviator, but also in becoming a good aviator,” Reightler says. “The things you do in one have a lot of carryover into the other.”

The most obvious similarity is that both sailboats and aircraft rely on airfoils: the teardrop-shaped forms that enable airplane wings to generate upward lift and give jib sails the power to help pull boats forward. In both cases, air on one side of the curved surface flows faster than on the other, creating a pressure difference that provides thrust.

“A wing is just a sail that’s horizontal instead of vertical, except that things happen a lot faster on an airplane,” says Malcolm Willard, who racked up hundreds of hours on sailboats before finally becoming a private pilot. If you understand how a sailboat functions, “it makes flying a lot easier,” he says.

That means grasping the dynamics not only of the sails, but of how the various systems on board a sailboat operate — from the airfoil and the rigging to the shapes and sizes of the hull and keel — and how the stresses and strains in each of them are interconnected. The same principles of physics apply to airplanes as well.

But it’s more than just the physics that sailors-turned-pilots find familiar. Sailing trains you to become sensitive to changes in weather, wind, sea-state, visibility, and currents; how to judge time, distance, and space; and how to alter your heading, angle-of-attack, rudder, and speed quickly to cope with them. All are essential skills in flying.

“All this becomes ingrained, kind of like muscle-memory,” Reightler says. “One of the most valuable things you can do in flying is to get comfortable with spotting changes in these conditions and responding to them when they appear. You can learn that more quickly in an airplane if you’ve done it on a sailboat.”

Also, sailing teaches you to evaluate how to handle any given challenge. Sailors must develop critical-thinking skills and problem-solving capabilities, such as provisioning for a long time at sea or determining whether to ride out a storm or race for port. That, in turn, hones a captain’s skills in risk-assessment, in judging whether the seaworthiness of the boat, the state of its equipment, and the capability of its crew justify settling on a particular course, reefing the sails, heading for home, or making any number of other critical choices.

“Aviation is just like sailing; there are a lot of inherent risks,” Reightler says, “Coping with them often requires that we make tradeoffs” that take account of the capabilities of our vessels, equipment, and crews.

Brian Buzzell, a former Navy helicopter pilot who learned to sail as a youngster before signing up for flight school, says racing sailboats imbued him with an ability for multi-tasking — even in dicey circumstances — that other would-be aviators didn’t always find easy to master.

Both sailors and pilots must keep the airfoil at a proper angle to the wind and cover more ground when the wind is behind them. Photo by Seth Williams[/caption] “Racing on sailboats as a kid, I had to learn how to handle the jib sheet with one hand, the mainsheet with the other, and the tiller with my foot when it was necessary, the same kinds of skills you need in flying a helicopter,” Buzzell recalls. And flying in formation was “the same thing you have to do when you sail around a race mark,” he says. “Once you’ve done it as a kid, it becomes ingrained in you, and you don’t even have to think about it anymore,” Buzzell asserts.

Because of his earlier sail-training, Buzzell says, he was able to make his helicopter hover over a site on the ground the first time he tried it, something no one else in his flight class could do. “When they asked me how I was able to do that, I said, ‘Simple—I’ve been a sailor all my life,’” he says. “Once you’ve been a sailor, this is a piece of cake.”

There are plenty of other sailing skills that carry over into flying. Preparation. Both sailors and airplane pilots must make painstaking preparations before they start, from running through pre-underway checklists to establishing detailed plans for docking or landing. And they must be prepared to deal with equipment failures and other emergencies, such as man-overboard situations or airplane stalls.

Both sailboats and aircraft are easily set off course by wind or currents. Both face sharply reduced speed when they’re heading into the wind and cover more ground when the wind is behind them. Both sailors and pilots must keep the airfoil at a proper angle to the wind, or lose power and stall. Both must understand relative motion. 


Ultra-fast multihulls, especially the ones sailed during last year's America's Cup, show even more clearly the parallels between flying and sailing. Photo of a SeaCart 30 by Dan Phelps

Ray Bejarano, a Reston, VA, pilot who owned a 38-foot sloop when he began flying lessons, says dealing with the “delicate balance” needed to keep an airplane stable is similar to the challenges that sailors face on the water. “Weather affects an airplane the same way it does a sailboat,” he says, and you have to act quickly to deal with it.

Both sailors and aviators need to be good navigators, capable of plotting and taking fixes. Because of the speed, airplane pilots must work more rapidly, but the basic techniques are the same. Weight and balance. Both sailors and aviators must take special care to distribute the weight of equipment, cargo, and passengers to maintain balance and must make sure that gear is secured properly so it doesn’t destabilize the craft. Finally, operating a sailboat, particularly as part of large crew, where everyone is dependent on everyone else, trains you in how to work as a team, and eventually shows you how to be a good leader, another skill that’s useful in aviation.

The notion that sailors make better airplane pilots has been an open secret in the aviation community for years, but the recent development of ultra-fast trimarans — such as those used in the past several America’s Cup races — is starting to show that the benefits flow both ways: learning to fly can make you a better sailor as well.

Jimmy Spithill, skipper and helmsman of Oracle Team USA 17, which won the America’s Cup last September, told television commentator Gary Jobson earlier this year that he signed up for flying lessons and got a pilot’s license in the months before the race to help him understand the physics of the huge wings installed on the 72-foot trimaran. “It was amazing to see how similar it was to sailing,” Spithill said. “It’s all about lift, drag, balance. A well-set-up plane is very easy to fly, just as a boat that is well set up is easy to sail.”

Indeed, the Annapolis-based National Sailing Hall of Fame, which conducts education programs designed to encourage youngsters to go into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, has invited leaders of yacht clubs and community sailing programs to a day-long session in October on the physics of sailing. Flying lessons aren’t included.

About the Author: Art Pine is a USCG-licensed captain and longtime Chesapeake Bay sailor and powerboater.