One of the first things people ask when they get into the sport is “what are those numbers on the disc?” This sends all of us down a long rabbit hole that we quickly realize leads to confusion, disappointment, and regret. The system that seems so simple and trustworthy betrays us over and over again. This article aims to break down why that is, how you should use flight numbers, and the change that could fix the whole problem.
From what I could find and remember, flight numbers were created by Innova to help players be able to compare discs within their lineup and know what characteristics to expect in the flight. This was a genius idea and well received. The numbers that they landed on were Speed, Glide, Turn, and Fade. The Speed of the disc described the speed of it’s flight alongside the amount of speed required to get the disc to do what the rest of the flight numbers say it is going to do (ie. a Destroyer takes more speed to turn than a Valkyrie). The next number on the disc stands for the Glide and gives you a glimpse into the disc's desire to stay in the air. This is crucial when deciding between discs and what you are going to use them for. The third number refers to the high speed turn of the disc. This means when the disc is thrown at the ideal speed for the disc it will react by turning off the initial line by a certain point. Usually this number is represented by a negative number and the lower the number, the more it turns. The final number refers to the low speed stability and what to expect as the disc finishes the flight and begins slowing down in its descent back to the ground. The higher the final number, the stronger the pull back to the line and then to the ground on angle.
This was great and worked as a good guide through the many discs on the shelf. Then other companies started using the same system. This is where things started to get confusing. Each company uses the same numbers and tries to follow the general principle, but there is no central body determining what discs have what flight numbers. This leads to a 13 speed Nuke having a 0.2cm wider rim than the 14 speed Corvette and the same rim width as the 14 speed Rampage. In my opinion, this is because Legacy and Innova knew a “14” speed disc would sell better than a “13” speed disc. Manufacturers now have a way to market their discs as “one of a kind” even if it isn’t true just to get us to jump on it. A great example of this is the “1 speed” putter from Løft claiming to be revolutionary simply because the Birdie, Polecat, and other putters are not mainstream putters but have the same speed and rim width. The result? A Kickstarter campaign that was funded in less than 10 minutes.
Another big issue that has been caused is the difference in glide, turn, and fade across the manufacturers. For example, the Discraft Vulture is listed as a 10,5,0,2 and the Innova Thunderbird is listed as a 9,5,0,2 but when throwing them the Thunderbird seems to fly faster, have more glide, and be more overstable. Not to mention that the Thunderbird has a wider rim than the Vulture as well. This is just one example, but I am sure you have had your own experience where you buy a disc based on flight numbers only to realize that it is nowhere close to what you expected.
So how should you use flight numbers? If possible, don’t. That sounds great, but I know it isn’t fully possible. If you stick within one manufacturer, the flight numbers should give you a good general idea of what a disc will do in comparison to other discs that they make. If you want to compare discs across brands, your best bet is either to find an in person location where you can feel the molds and look at them to see how they compare or post a question on Reddit, in a Facebook group, or just ask someone in your local scene that might know. If you are looking at the discs in person, you should be looking at a few things. First of all look at the rim width. Grip the discs you are comparing and see how similar the shape and width are in your hand. If one feels different, it probably is. Next look at the profile of the disc. Pay attention to every detail but especially the shape of the rim and the height of the rim. Line the discs up and see if they look identical or if you can notice some differences in shape and height of the rim. If they feel the same in your hand and look almost identical, chances are you have found a pretty comparable mold.
What could be done to avoid this whole issue altogether? I am glad you asked. The simplest solution is for the PDGA to regulate the flight numbers. Each manufacturer has to send new molds in for approval to them anyways so part of the process could be assigning them their numbers based on the rim shape, height, width, parting line height, shoulder shape, etc. This would solve the issue to where every manufacturer is on the same scale and therefore we do not have to worry about someone pumping up the speed, glide, fade, etc. in order to move some more of their new mold. Flight Numbers were once a great thing. Now they are just a confusing mess and make you sound like a conspiracy theorist whenever you try to explain them to your friend just getting into the sport.