Why Are We Humans So Fascinated By Personal Flight?

In dreams, in science fiction, in popular culture – personal flight enthralls us in every moment of our waking lives, and it’s not always clear why.

The concept of flight itself, which was once mysterious and hard to understand, has been fully understood by scientists for years. Planes, helicopters, and other such aircraft are no longer a novelty – they’re often simply part of a hum-drum daily routine. When was the last time you got excited about a long plane trip?

But personal flight is different. There is something primal in our nature – something that wants to simply spread out wings, and feel the breeze blowing past our ears. Personal flight – unlike commercial flight – still remains a fascination for many.

But why is this the case? Why are humans so fascinated by personal flight? In this blog post, we’ll take a look at this subject and research that’s been done around it, and offer some of our own conjectures.

Flying In Your Dreams – One Of The Most Popular, Recurring Dreams

Our dreams are often thought to be part of our subconscious – a part of us that cannot be truly understood in our waking hours. The true function of dreams is unknown, though some have conjectured that they are a side-effect of the brain sorting through recent and long-term memories.

That’s why it’s interesting that dreams of flight are so common, and occur for almost everyone. From anecdotal experience, we can tell you that just about everyone has had at least one dream of flight, and a study by Amerisleep confirms that this is quite common. 32.6% of people have had a dream of flying.

Another interesting fact is that flying was the most common positive dream. The top 4 dreams that were in front of flight were, in order:

  • Falling – 53.5%
  • Being chased – 50.9%
  • Being back in school – 37.9%
  • Being unprepared for a test or other major life event – 34.0%

All of these could be considered negative experiences. But flying is almost always perceived as positive – most people feel a sense of freedom when flying in their dreams, and no sense of danger.

Curiously, the most common dream of all wasn’t flying – but falling. 53.5% of the surveyed population had had a dream about falling. Perhaps, though the subconscious desires flight, it also seeks to keep us from setting our sights too high – and putting ourselves in danger.

Skydiving, Wingsuiting, And Gliding – Getting Closer To That “Flying Feeling”

There are those who would dismiss people who skydive – or, more recently, “wingsuit” – as mere thrill-seekers. Extreme sports enthusiasts who have more bravery than brains – and are willing to risk their lives for a taste of the freedom of flying.

But this dismissive attitude ignores the history of personal human flight. Humans have been trying to fly for centuries – if not millennia.

From the story of Icarus, who attempted to fly from captivity on wings of wax, to early individuals in history who tried to fly by jumping off towers, flying using kites, or jumping off of cliffs and hills using early gliders, there have always been those who sought the skies.

It would seem that today’s “thrill seekers” are no different. Wingsuiting, especially, offers enthusiasts the option to “fly” untethered for around 3-5 minutes – and indulge that primal urge to fly without mechanical assistance.

The Prevalence Of Personal Flight In Sci-Fi And Popular Culture

Another interesting thing about personal flight is that it’s always seen as something that’s achievable – sometime in the future – with the right technology. Personal flight has been a part of comic books and popular culture since the early 1900s.

Superman is a great example – and perhaps the best example of being able to fly without assistance from technology. But then there are other comic book characters, such as the Rocketeer and Iron Man, who are able to use technology to overcome their earthbound existence, and soar the skies with other superheroes.

The Jetsons are also often used as an example of the focus on technology and personal flight. From flying cars, to personal jetpacks and anti gravity devices, The Jetsons painted a picture of a Utopian future where personal flight was an everyday fact of life, and both adults and children could fly at will.

The “jetpack” – a device which uses some kind of engine or motor to provide lift and fly without any wings – is a great example of this obsession with personal flight. It began in popularity around the 1960s, when pop culture icons from James Bond began flying around, untethered, using “rocket belts”, and other such devices.

Since then, jet packs have become a staple in popular culture, and are present in movies and TV show franchises from Star Wars to Spy Kids and The Simpsons.

And they’re part of our real-world culture, too. Several companies have attempted to create jet packs, JetPack aviation is the only one to date, to be successful.

What’s The Psychology Behind Our Love Of Flight? Why Are We Pulled To The Edge?

So, we dream about flying. Some of us look to achieve this dream with controlled free-falls, from hang gliding to wingsuiting and skydiving – and others simply allow their dream of flight to live on in popular culture, and special effects at the movies.

But why? Why are we so obsessed with personal flight, despite the fact that commercial, multi-person flights using aircraft are so common? It’s not an easy question to answer, as there haven’t been many wide-spread studies related to this phenomenon.

One reason could be that the air is, simply, off-limits to us – and we are driven to try to change that. It makes sense, if you think about it. We are able to live on this planet in the most extreme temperatures. We can swim – albeit in a limited fashion – and dive underwater to deep areas without the assistance of SCUBA equipment.

But we cannot fly. Our bodies were not made for it. Our muscles are not large enough, our bones are not hollow, we don’t have the lung capacity required to get enough oxygen into our blood – particularly when we’re high in the air – we could go on with our list of limitations.

The air is unconquered – except with large, noisy machines that can only be operated by experienced, professional pilots. Perhaps this frustration is what drives us to look for a simpler way – it’s what makes us want to simply stretch out our wings, and fly.

This may also contribute to the feeling that the French call l’appel du vide, or “the call of the void”. If you’ve ever found yourself on a steep cliff or hill – and thought about simply jumping off – you’ve experienced this feeling.

You may feel yourself “pulled” toward the edge, or curious about what may happen if you simply step off into the air. It sounds morbid, but most of the time, this ideation is completely non-suicidal.

It’s almost a sense of curiosity – a simple desire to feel what it might be like to fly, even for such a brief moment. This has also been called the “High Place Phenomenon”, and it’s so common that scientific studies have been commissioned on it.

In this study, 33% of surveyed undergrads had experienced this feeling. And only about 50% of that sample size had any kind of suicidal ideation in the past – suggesting that this desire is more deeply-seated, and not related to other psychological issues or mental illnesses.

Currently, there is no scientific consensus about what causes this phenomenon. But we would argue that it’s closely related to our desire for personal flight.

After all, those early ancient flight pioneers who threw themselves off towers and cliffs wearing nothing but woodwork wings or flying primitive gliders were not crazy. They were not suicidal. They truly believed in what they were doing, and wanted to soar with the eagles. In many cases, they failed – but it was not a desire to die which forced them to do it. It was a desire to fly.

Our Obsession With Flight – A Continuing Phenomenon

Humans are not going to stop dreaming of personal flight any time soon. Our desire to fly is deep-seated and ancient – even the Bible makes reference to it in Isaiah 40:31, where it is promised that those who put their faith in the Lord will “Fly on wings like eagles”.

For now, most of us remain earthbound. But our dream will continue. And one day, thanks to the spirit of human innovation, we are sure to be able to join the birds, and soar through the clouds and the sky. It seems a certainty that, for as long as we dream of personal flight, we’ll work to achieve it.