A New Kind of Flying


Once more for the record, I’m an adrenaline addict. No talking my way around that, either – it’s a fact. I jumped out of planes for years, my most brutal injuries have been willingly self-inflicted, and the feeling of calm and peace after huge adrenaline surges is one of my most favoritest feelings in the world. Ever. I love flying through the air more than standing on the ground.  Despite the risks.

I’ve just gotten tired of all the forced hospital visits and life upheavals. After years and years of taking my personal safety quite lightly, I really needed to find a pastime that had less of a chance of killing me than I’ve done before now.  I was running out of ideas until my good friend Alan visited about 5 months ago and said those 5 deadly words.

“Want to fly my drone?”

I had no idea what I was in for when I said “hell yes”.  Not even a clue.

It was a blast!  I took Alan’s advice and bought a good transmitter and FPV (first-person view) goggles, along with a Tiny Whoop (a micro-sized FPV drone that flys like the big racers, but’s totally safe for bumping around and into people indoors).

At first, I was a total wreck – and quite literally.  Smashed my first mini-drone so many times that I got better at fixing it than flying it (turns out, that’s actually a bonus).  I got so frustrated at my attempts to loosely control what I was doing that I ended up taking a few breaks between each session just to rebuild my confidence.

The whoop was amazing- I soon started doing loops around my living room and kitchen downstairs and setting up chairs and obstacles as racing gates.  It was like a video game in the real world, and I loved it.  I wanted more.  I wanted to fly outside in the real air, with something that had real power.

Although everyone warned me against it, I decided to try a full-sized 5″ racing quadcopter… and that’s when things got real.  Racing drones have hair-trigger throttles, turn on a dime, and can reach speeds of 90mph+ at their peak, this was no indoor family game anymore.  But as opposed to being put off, the bigger size made the quad perform more like I’d expected the tiny whoop to, despite the fully manual controls and lack of GPS and autopilot modes. It felt comfortable, if not a bit scary and overpowered. The extra weight of a racing quad made the physics of the flying experience far more realistic, at least to me.  Gravity worked a bit more the way I expected it to, as opposed to the random flitters of a micro drone roughly the size of a large hummingbird, which can almost float on air and gets pushed around by the lightest of breezes.

And the stakes were much higher.  A little too skitchy on the throttle and I could find myself 40′ higher than expected.  Or lower.  Trees now became magnetic portals of entrapment, sucking in my errant quad quickly whenever I drifted too closely.  The speed of my new 5″ quad made it hard to find a place to practice- just a loop at reasonable speeds took up close to a football field’s worth of space.  Everything was jacked up to a macro level.

But it was really the gravity play that sold me.  It’s astounding how much you rely on – depend on – gravity when flying a freestyle or racing drone, even moreso than the thrust your throttle stick provides.  Flying is a dance of push and pull, of lift and drop – more akin to a dance than a process.  At first your moves are harsh and coarsely-grained, poorly coordinated with each other, but over time your right and left feet (thumbs?) start to work in concert.  Find a rhythm they can work with- and you stop thinking about the hows of the experience and start concentrating on the whys.  And then you realize that flying is just an endless procession of throwing yourself into the air, falling, and then catching yourself to rise again.  A yin and yang of momentum and force.  A beautiful partnership of positive thrust and negative force. The larger airframes started to feel more natural, more familiar. Reflexive.

Well shit, I’m hooked.

The first time I pulled off a split-S turn I almost cried it felt so amazing. The first time I crashed one was equally amazing, but in a different way.  I realized that as long as I could solder parts together and rebolt fresh arms onto my quad, I could get back in the air another time with no guilt, no long-term repercussions. Even better, there’s no surgeries, no long rehabilitations, and no bodily risk.  This was the first time I’d ever done something that raised my adrenaline level significantly without there being a resulting likelihood of injury involved.

And I started getting better quickly after that.  Aside from the visceral shock of seeing your quad hit trees with a first-person view, I fully embraced the rush of flying without hesitation.  And it made me even more brave. I moved on to power loops, Immelmans, all the crazy tricks I’ve watched pilots do since I was a kid. All that mental preparation I’d done over the years paid off in spades once I got my hands on a real pair of sticks.

I finally got my hands on a good photography drone a few weeks ago – the Mavic Pro Platinum – and it was the final straw for me.  For as twitchy, barely controllable, and unforgiving as a racing or acrobatic quad can be, a photo drone is stable, child-proof, and almost flies itself.  Now I usually rip a battery pack or two in the big bird to wind down after a hair-raising acro session, and find a pretty spot in the sky to take a picture from.  It’s magical.  And the best therapy in the world, at least for me.

Today I find myself grimacing whenever I see heavy wind outside because I know it’s a day in which I won’t be able to fly.  It’s strange but a bit comforting to feel me care that much about something, anything, besides music (which will always be a core part of my soul).

But it’s a hell of a lot better than feeling the need to put my own safety at risk just to get my rocks off.

And at least for now, that’s worth all the money in the world.