Creed III, the newest installment in the revivification of the Rocky film franchise, saw the return of heartthrob Michael B. Jordan as the titular world champion heavyweight boxer. At the start of the movie, which is also Jordan’s directorial debut, Creed has announced his retirement, but it’s not long before the deceitful antics of antagonist Damian (Jonathan Majors) drag Creed back into the ring. Which means that it’s not long before we get the quintessential ingredient that makes a sports film a sports film: the training montage. In Creed III, Jordan can be seen doing all manner of things, from punching literal trees in the forest to pulling a small plane.
My first thought was: Could Michael B. Jordan—not his stuntman, but the man himself—pull a plane? This brought me to what is perhaps an even grander question: How hard is pulling a plane? I know that bodybuilders and the world’s strongest men pull larger planes competitively—pulling a plane the size of the one in Creed III can’t be out of the realm of possibility. And yet, it still feels unbelievable—which is, I guess, why they put it in the movie. But, as Dr. Ramón Barthelemy—assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Utah and fellow of the American Physical Society—told me, this feat is not actually as hard as you’d think.
The explanation starts with friction. “Friction is the force that exists on every surface that is what allows us to walk, it allows us to pick stuff up, and it also makes sure that we don’t randomly start moving if we make a small movement. Friction keeps us in place; without friction everything would be slipping and moving. It would basically be like we lived in a world on pure ice,” Barthelemy said. He points to the traditional model all introductory physics classes use when trying to understand the mechanics of pulling objects: a box on the ground, with a rope attached. “There’s two things that matter when we’re thinking about friction that way,” he said. “We care about the weight of that box pushing down on the ground, and then we care about something called the friction coefficient, which basically measures how much friction there is between the ground and then the surface of the box.” If the coefficient is zero, there is no friction, meaning that the force you must overcome to start moving an object is also zero. A larger coefficient would require a larger amount of force to start moving the object; ideally, you’d want the smallest coefficient of friction possible when endeavoring to move something. If the aforementioned box were to be made of concrete, it would be harder to pull, with its gritty bottom clashing against the road, than a box made of ice, which could glide more easily. “An airplane is actually no different,” Barthelemy said. “[The coefficient of] rolling friction is modeled in the same way.”
Barthelemy pointed me to an even more basic principle that further demystifies the process of pulling heavy objects, particularly ones with wheels. “Conceptually, though, it’s actually better to think about momentum and inertia rather than the friction piece,” he said. “This is Newton’s first law—if you have an object that’s already moving? It wants to stay moving.” This idea mildly undercuts the sell, the flamboyancy, of the act when bodybuilders pull airplanes for entertainment. “In physics, we model things differently for the static coefficient of friction and the kinetic coefficient of friction,” Barthelemy said. “The static coefficient means it’s staying still [and it’s] generally larger than the kinetic. That force that you have to overcome for friction is going to be less if the object is moving. [And] once that airplane is moving, it wants to stay moving, and consequently is going to be easier to keep it going than otherwise.” Usually, the hype around plane-pulling focuses on the distance and time: Wow, this guy has pulled this airplane 25 meters! But the most miraculous part is in getting the plane from being parked to being in motion—a much harder endeavor, with much less visual pizzazz.
A lot of society’s fascination with humans achieving what we would consider inhuman feats comes from the idea that these accomplishments are just that: impossible. Or, at the very least, incredibly difficult. But the truth is that we’re not that far off from the strongest men in the world: we’ve pushed cars, rocked them back and forth to gain momentum; we’ve pumped our legs to reach new heights on swingsets. “You see a lot of this with a lot of things that we see as superhuman feats.” For example, “where you see people lay down on beds of nails. It’s a physics trick,” Barthelemy said. “Most things are physics tricks. If you’ve seen people break cinderblock bricks or when people break boards … all of that is basically just physics.”
But, just because pulling a plane is a “physics trick,” it doesn’t make it so easy that any random person could do it. “It’s not to say that it’s not difficult. I mean, I could not pull an airplane myself, right?” Barthelemy said. “I don’t have that athletic ability. I think most people probably don’t. But a group of people could. And it’s just about getting it going first, right? I would actually probably start trying to rock it.”
Why do people like watching a hero pull a plane? Creed III, and real-life strongman competitions, for that matter, find a way to straddle the line between really difficult but humanly possible and superhero levels of impossible. “I think that [Creed] pulling the airplane, since there is this cultural idea that that would be really difficult to do, shows that he has a superpower,” said Barthelemy. “But it also shows that his superpower isn’t necessarily completely unbelievable, because people do do that. It’s just very hard. So I think it straddles the balance between having a superpower but also being relatable.”
I wouldn’t necessarily call Michael B. Jordan “relatable,” but he’s not as distant-feeling as, say, Tom Cruise. Did Michael B. Jordan actually pull his plane in Creed III? I reached out to his publicists for confirmation, but only got the response that he was too “tapped out” to reply. Tapped out from pulling planes? One can only hope.