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Can Batman Fly?

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The Early Days of Batman's Cape

Batman has been 'The Caped Crusader' from the first time he leapt out of comic books in 1939.

Yet it wasn't until 2005 when Christopher Nolan directed the first of his Dark Knight trilogy, Batman Begins, that his cape became useful. For the movie, Nolan upgraded Batman’s cape using current military technology and turned it into a wingsuit. In earlier incarnations, the cape had been little more than a fashion accessory, much as the one worn over gray spandex by Adam West in the 1960s TV series.

1939 First Batman Comic

1939 First Batman Comic

The First Bat Capes

The original Batman, as illustrated by Bob Kane in the late 1930s, had bird-like wings, perhaps inspired by the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. The original story writer, Bill Fingers, suggested Batman wear a scallop-edged cape, so he didn’t look so much like Superman. From that point, whenever Batman moved, his cape would flow out behind him like bat’s wings.

Between the early comics and Nolan’s visualization, there was a rendering of Batman with something that approached a flying cape. For the sequel to Tim Burton’s original Batman movie, Batman Returns, made in 1992, the Caped Crusader wore a cape which turned into a hang glider. Whenever Batman wanted to launch into the air, a harness would fold out and turn into a rigid hang glider structure. Once he had landed with a forward roll, this harness would fold back into his cape.

1980's Batman Cape

1980's Batman Cape

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Modern Batman's Cape

Unlike Superman, Batman has no superpowers. He relies on his Ninja-like skills and technology to give him a fighting edge over the criminals of Gotham City. The 21st Century Batman is equipped with a utility belt, batarangs, smoke pellets, various types of grenades and body armor. To get around the city in his preferred stealth mode, he uses a grappling hook and a cape. Both these tools allow him to exploit the high rooftops of Gotham’s gothic cityscape. The cape not only allows him to cross the city, but it also contains Nomex to make it fireproof, and a Kevlar weave to deflect bullets.

But the question remains, can Batman fly using his cape? The answer probably not so much that he can fly as... glide.

Batman deploys his cape like a wingsuit in a style called proximity flying. Webbed surfaces on the wingsuit between the legs, arms, and body, generate enough lift to prevent the diver from plummeting into the ground. The wingsuit offers enough control for the diver to reduce the speed at which they’re falling while increasing horizontal speed. Small inlets in the wingsuit help to inflate it as it’s passing through the air. By tilting his body like a bird’s wing, he can even make turns mid-air. This capability would be useful for Batman should the bad guy spot him and take off in another direction. In Batman Begins, Lucius Fox shows Bruce Wayne how to do this. By using a glove with electric shockers in the fingertips, he can rigidify the cape’s exoskeleton. This capability turns it into something that enables Batman to glide effortlessly off the top of a tall building. (No small feat--when you consider that Batman and his Batsuit weigh something in the region of 300 pounds!)

Dark Knight Wingsuit

Dark Knight Wingsuit

Batman's Memory Cape

This high-tech gliding cape isn’t pure science fiction. Like many fictional gadgets, their workings are underpinned by scientific fact. Smart memory materials, such as would be needed for Batman’s cape, actually do exist. One such is a nickel-titanium alloy called Nitinol. When heated to 930° F, its molecules realign to remember a programmed base shape. Other memory materials can be triggered by electricity or light. Electricity can be used to heat up an alloy through Joule heating. Here, electrons from an electric current bump into molecules, giving them energy. The exoskeleton of Batman’s cape could be rigidified by Joule energy and the fabric part of the cape made from parachute material. Let’s not forget creating a Batman cape with state-of-the-art military technology would be very expensive. You'd have little change from half a million dollars.

What Does Scientific Research Say About Batman?

Believe it or not, there has been a study to determine whether Batman can fly. Four researchers at the University of Leicester did the math and concluded that Batman could glide with his cape, if not actually fly. Their paper, entitled, “The Trajectory of a Falling Batman,” doesn’t envisage a happy ending for Batman jumping off a Gotham City skyscraper. The study concludes that Batman needs a larger cape if he is to have a chance of reaching the ground uninjured. Batman’s current 15.4’ wingspan is about half that of a typical hang glider, just not enough for stress-free flight. The researchers calculated that Batman would reach speeds of up to 68 miles per hour in flight. At the point of landing, he would impact the ground at around 50 miles per hour. This impact is roughly the same as being run over by a car, and wouldn’t leave Batman in good shape, despite his enviable physique.

Still, Batman’s cape come wingsuit would generate lift, that vital vertical force which keeps planes in the air and moving forward. Gravity, of course, pulls any falling object as quickly as it can towards the Earth. It’s the angle of wing structures, and the air flowing over them, which generates an opposing vertical force called lift. The ratio of lift over gravitational pull dictates the angle of thrust or the amount the flying object travels horizontally. The university researchers estimated that Batman could travel two yards for every yard he fell.

Unfortunately, the study concluded that in a sense Batman’s cape works too well as a glider. He would be traveling too fast at the point of landing to survive the flight. Either he would need to land on something soft, say, a pile of cardboard boxes, or he would have to release a parachute to slow him down.

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