There was a time when surfing was confined to the water. Heaving lips were smacked with great chutzpah, glassy blue face was carved with sushi-chef precision, but the notion of the aerial was a foreign concept. “If I got air,” said a late ‘70s top pro, “I think I’d just jump off.”
The aerial was a skate move. It was what Tony Alva did when his ambitions exceeded the coping of the Dog Bowl. It was the natural extension that every skater knew was coming (caterpillars turn into butterflies). Skateboarding began as a surf surrogate, a way to keep the hip flow and cross step dance when the waves weren’t happening. Surfers did on concrete what they’d rather be doing on water. But skateboarding eventually took on a life of its own. In the ‘70s, the banks and curling hedges that doubled for waves gave way to empty pools and half pipes. And skaters got air. And then surfers got air.
Enter Kevin Reed in Santa Cruz, California and Matt Kechele in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Both were surfer/skaters; both had elevated above coping on ramps and in pools. They were among the first to bring it to water, albeit in a more chop-hoppy fashion. The aerial gained steam through the early ‘80s, thanks to guys like Bud Llamas, John McClure, Davey Smith, Cheyne Horan, John Holeman, Larry Bertlemann, and Martin Potter. But the first big airs, the air etched not only into the annals of surf history but onto the cover of Surfer magazine (in 1988), was done by one Christian Fletcher of San Clemente, California.
“I was skating a lot with Christian Hosoi at that time,” Fletcher told me. “I’d go from skating half-pipes in the day, and doing tons of airs, then surfing Lowers in the afternoon. It all felt the same—the coping on the half-pipe, the lip of the wave.”
In the beginning, aerials were considered a dubious maneuver. Purists considered them illegitimate and nonfunctional. But they gathered steam in the early ‘90s, mainly through the New School group—Kelly Slater, Shane Dorian, Shane Beschen, Rob Machado, and Ross Williams. The first aerial-specific contest took place in Santa Cruz in 1996, and grew into a proper “airshow” circuit.
Today, airs are of course a giant part of the shortboarding vocabulary. I could leave you with a quote from one of surfing’s great aerialists, but let’s take it much higher into the sky, let’s take it back to aviation pioneer Charles A. Lindbergh: “Sometimes, flying feels too godlike to be attained by man. Sometimes, the world from above seems too beautiful, too wonderful, too distant for human eyes to see.”