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Like almost all superheroes who can fly, Superman almost always flies headfirst, often with his fist extended in front of him.

There doesn't seem to be any reason why this pose would be superior to any other, unless he's in a serious rush to get somewhere. Why not fly feet first, or sideways, or standing up, or sitting Indian style?

When Superman is just getting from one place to another and isn't in a hurry, why does he fly headfirst?

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From FASTER: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed (2013) by triathlete and aeronautical engineer Jim Gourley:

It's why Superman flies head first. With that huge cape adding so much drag, he needs to be as efficient as possible! The most common way to reduce your frontal area is to lean farther over the aerobars on the bike or improve your streamline position in the water. Coaches and bike fitters go to great lengths to emphasize this, because unnecessary frontal area significantly compromises performance.

In other words, by flying horizontally, friction is significantly reduced. Flying standing up, for example, presents a lot more surface area for air resistance.

This is consistent with the fact that Superman doesn't always fly head first. When he's not concerned about speed or efficiency, or when he is performing a particular maneuver, he may adopt other positions:

enter image description here

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    But what if he doesn't care how long a flight lasts? Even when he's just floating around slowly, taking in the scenery, he is headfirst – Wad Cheber stands with Monica Sep 6 '15 at 5:21
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    @WadCheber : See added info. – Praxis Sep 6 '15 at 5:38
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    Great answer. Another reason is probably that you have a lot better vison of where you are going flying head first, compared to flying to flying feet first which would also have low air resistance. – Pelmered Sep 6 '15 at 9:19
  • “Even when he's just floating around slowly, taking in the scenery, he is headfirst” Do we see Superman on a lot of recreational flights? – Paul D. Waite Sep 6 '15 at 16:45
  • @SJuan76 In some versions of the story, the cape has a pocket for him to stash his civilian clothes in. – Random832 Sep 7 '15 at 6:00
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My guess is that it is mainly for the same reason that the cockpit is nearly always positioned in the front of an airplane. The reason for this seems to basically be visibility.

Source: http://www.quora.com/Why-is-the-cockpit-in-the-front-of-the-plane

Visibility is probably not a matter of personal safety for Superman - crashing into something might not kill him - but, being a nice guy, he probably wouldn't want to destroy an airplane filled with people in mid-flight. Even if he managed to save them all, it would probably ruin their day. And even when there are no airplanes around, crashing into fifteen geese is likely not that fun either.

My own personal addition to Superman flying headfirst is that it makes more sense anatomically. His head (or, often, his extended arm) is one item, whereas his legs are two separate items. Air resistance, enormous at these speeds, will likely work to pry his legs apart and make them flail every which way. Of course, he is Superman, so he has enough muscle to keep them together, but why get distracted by the unnecessary muscle tension? Just fly head (arm) first, and leave legs in the back to drag.

enter image description here

Superman is also occasionally portrayed with both arms extended. In principle, this makes some sense as well, if the double-arm pose was the water-dynamic pose used by divers.

However, the occasional double-arm pose tends to be closer to this:

enter image description here

Now this one I find rather impractical. The only way extending your arms would make sense is if you A. Keep your hands together, B. keep your hands open and not in fists, and C. tuck your head in. The obvious reason for the less practical pose is that it looks extra cool, but come on Superman. Everyone already knows you're heroic and whatnot.

enter image description here Yes.

enter image description here No.

  • extending your arms in front of you is to protect your face. okok, he's invincible, but it's still an "early warning systen", and it's a natural pose. it's the same reason a person would walk with their hands stretched out in front of them in the dark. so that something hits your hands before it hits your face or torso. again it's a natural thing to do, it doesn't have to be specifically necessary for superman to do. – Dave Cousineau Sep 6 '15 at 21:09
  • @Sahuagin Seems to me that you would be far safer with your arms not blocking your field of view. Besides, what would they protect you against? Up in the sky you're likely to encounter object like airplanes and eagles - things you would probably see a mile away, even with normal human vision. I suppose you could bump into a falling meteorite or something, but extended fists aren't that likely to protect your face against that. No, that doesn't seem practical at all. – Misha R Sep 6 '15 at 21:38
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    @MishaRosnach These are basic human instincts—they’re not based on in-the-situation logic. And since Superman comes from a race of perfectly normal humanoids and is only special and invincible here on Earth, it would make sense for him to have the same instincts and reflexes as the rest of us. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 6 '15 at 22:28
  • @JanusBahsJacquet That isn't really how instincts work. A basic human instinct might make a person briefly push both arms out the first time they fly, but they would soon learn to stick to a more useful pose. Take a look at the picture of a skydiver in one of the answers here. – Misha R Sep 6 '15 at 22:40
  • @MishaRosnach Skydivers have a reason for needing to overcome the instinctive hands-first protective position. Superman doesn't really; and if there's no real need to consciously learn to override instinctive movements, they'll probably just stay and become habit. It's not like there's any real disadvantage to it when you're Superman anyway. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 6 '15 at 22:44
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Speaking as an ex-skydiver, if you want to fly forward relative to the ground, you don't put your arms in front, you hold them backwards. Something like this.

enter image description here

When diving into water you clasp your hands ahead of you only to protect your head by breaking the surface of the water.

I suggest that because Superman can presumably fly faster than sound, he is being considerate to people on the ground by holding a hand or hands in front, reducing the shockwave he produces. Also this will prevent his hairstyle from being disturbed too much.

Finally I don't believe superman has super clothes (??). Therefore, to avoid them being destroyed by the enormous wind-force, he is deflecting the airflow away from them with his bare fist.

  • I don't believe superman has super clothes I assume he has or it would have an awful lot of bullet holes in it by now :) – Jane S Sep 6 '15 at 21:31
  • @JaneS - Where did he get the super fabric from though? Didn't he catch the bullets in his hands? Presumably he has plenty of spare suits at home. In the first Christopher Reeve movie I think his adopted mother (Martha Kent) made his first suit. (?) – chasly from UK Sep 6 '15 at 21:35
  • If I recall canon (I'm far from an expert), his suit was made from the swaddling cloth he was wrapped in as a baby in his space ship. My comment was based on a scene from Superman Returns where someone is shooting a minigun into his chest and his suit is completely undamaged :) – Jane S Sep 6 '15 at 21:37
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    I wonder how Martha managed to cut the swaddling cloth with Earth scissors. – chasly from UK Sep 6 '15 at 21:41
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    @chaslyfromUK IIRC in the versions of the story where this happened at all, she unravelled the cloth and rewove it in the new shape. (Other versions of the story have him generate a protective field that extends 1mm or so beyond his skin.) – Random832 Sep 7 '15 at 5:58
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Let me quote the titular story from Eric Knight's The Flying Yorkshireman, from when Sam Small gains the power of flight and learns to control it.

For, curiously enough, although all the movements that a bird makes normally in flight came natural to him, he had to learn of his own accord the evolutions that an airplane can achieve.

I would guess Superman is similar: flying headfirst comes to him by instinct.

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