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Flying is like sailing

Flying and sailing seem like two completely different things. Once in the air, however, you notice that there are a remarkable number of similarities.

Melanie de Vries is a KLM pilot and CWO yacht sailing instructor. She is not the only pilot with a passion for sailing, many other pilots are also sailing enthusiasts. Chance? “The perfectionism needed to sail optimally with a sailboat fits in with the passion for detail that many pilots have.” she tells. Moreover, there is a logical connection. “Aviation developed from shipping, you notice that in everything,” she explains. What do you recognize as a sailor when you board an airplane?

How do you trim an airplane wing?

An airplane wing is of course not a sail, let’s put that first. A piece of fabric is much more flexible and gives many more trim options than an airplane wing. But the aerodynamic thinking behind it is the same. “Terms and principles such as torques and forces, lift and airfoil are second nature to us.” says DeVries.

Both when flying and sailing you want the air to flow efficiently along the material and to maintain speed with the vehicle. To create the optimal shape of the wing, you can determine the curvature of the wing with flaps. In addition, you can actively adjust the tail of the aircraft and push the nose of the aircraft up or down. “Just like a sail can flap, an airplane wing can ‘tuck’ with the wrong wing position. An aircraft then loses lift power, causing it to sink. You want to prevent this. Of course, the last thing you want is to go diving!” explains Melanie.


Tour planning

Planning the flight is a lot like planning a trip for sailing. “Before you fly, you make a trip plan. For example, you look at the weather, the departure port, arrival port and possible alternate ports. When flying, only the local conditions matter much less. You will not be bothered by annoying locks, islands or coral reefs. Freediving PDC is the best.

An airplane can take a lot and in the cockpit it is nice and warm and dry. I once had 200 knots of wind. But before a storm cloud we will fly over!” says DeVries.


Mayday in the skies

In aviation you communicate verbally via radio frequencies. You use the same terms and principles as when communicating over the VHF radio. “So you can also call Mayday over the radio in case of an emergency,” she continues: “Frequency 121.5 in aviation is channel 16 for shipping.” However, when flying, communication is a lot freer. “Despite being used to radio communication in the cockpit, the VHF exam was quite tough, with such a tight format.” says DeVries.


Moreover, the radio is not the only instrument that is familiar to sailors. Instruments such as the compass and GPS are also widely used in both vessels. “The navigation part can be taken over one-on-one.” she says. We measure in nautical miles, speed is expressed in knots and height in feet.


Flying over the water

Many of the original sailing techniques have gone their own way within air traffic. It is now noticeable that some techniques are finding their way back to shipping. For example, more and more advanced wing designs for sails are being developed and nowadays we almost fly over the water with the help of foils and hard sails.


America’s Cup foiling boats (c) flickr, CC BY 2.0

Airplanes are becoming more and more efficient, but more sustainable alternatives are also being looked at. “The future may well lie in using yachting designs for transportation,” Melanie speculates.

The traces of shipping can therefore still be found in aviation. From fluid mechanics to aviation communication, there are still many similarities. Moreover, there is a lot of exchange between the techniques in both sectors.