Somewhere deep inside a forest in Washington state, Jake Wells sits on a tree stump and flies a homemade tricopter drone fast and close to the ground between the trees, mostly in the name of God.
Wells is a tattoo artist and born-again Christian who is known in the drone community as Fleshpilot, which is also the name of his website and YouTube channel, where he offers free video instructions for building your own homemade drone. (His own tricopter, in a miracle of unmanned aerospace, can land on water and float on it too). There are plenty of his own flight videos, some of which are breathtaking. It looks like a fairly average hobby drone site, until you get to the page called My Testimony, in which he describes how he gave his life to Jesus, following what appears to have been a severe bout of depression.
Wells flies FPV, or First Person View. A camera attached to the drone sends a live video feed through to a screen or a pair of goggles on the ground, allowing the pilot to see what the drone sees. It's the closest thing to one of those dreams in which you can fly. Your body is on the ground, but you are hovering above it.
Wells cites the Bible, Romans: 8:20-24: even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.
Last April, Nadav Assor, an Israeli artist and filmmaker, traveled to Washington to film Wells flying for a film he was working on. In Assor's eerie and mesmerizing short film, Wells appears to exhibit some of the behaviors of a person having an out of body experience. (The film, "Lessons on Leaving Your Body," premiered this week at the Transmediale 2015 festival; a documentary, Reality Capture, made with the filmmaker Yoni Goldstein, is forthcoming.)
In Corinthians, the apostle Paul describes how a traveler (thought to be Paul himself) suddenly feels his perspective lifted to the heavens, just like an FPV pilot. The title of the Fleshpilot website references "Romans 8:20-24", a passage about hope and deliverance from pain and suffering: "even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body." Can drones serve as a means of that deliverance, of escape from the body?
I needed to unpack Wells' drone theology. I called him on one of those empty days between Christmas and New Year's. He's friendly, and has a disarming, sarcastic tone, especially when he's trying to make a point. We talked for a long time, as he drove to work at the tattoo parlor and then waited around for a client (who never showed).
Wells explained that he has always loved flying and RC. His first job, when he was fourteen, was at a hobby shop. He played early flight simulators compulsively. He even built himself a plywood cockpit with a working canopy when he was ten. He tried to become a Navy pilot, but his eyesight wasn't good enough so he became an engineer in the engine rooms of destroyers and cruisers stationed in California. He served on three tours of duty, including one during Operation Iraqi Freedom. "I was a mechanic, so I didn't see action or anything," he said.
After leaving the Navy, he fell into a depression. "My marriage started failing, my business started failing, I lost interest in everything," he writes in his testimony. "I began to hate everything." His success as a tattoo artist had also become a curse: eight years of listening to his clients' stories—many of them, he writes, about "b roken marriages, broken families, lots of deaths, lots of recovery stories, lots of pain, lots of heartbreak, tons and tons of it"—had worn heavily on him. "Everyone is looking for an answer to their problems. They'll ask Oprah, Dr. Phil, Jerry Springer, even a high school drop out tattoo artist like me. When you tattoo 12 hours a day 7 days a week a lot of painful stories fill and consume your mind."
Over a decade earlier, in a revelatory moment, Wells had converted to Christianity, but the moment was short lived. One night in 2008, while drinking alone in his garage, he angrily called on God again to make things right. In the years that followed, voices began to fill his head, voices that eventually grew unbearable. He told Assor: "I had this voice telling me, 'I'm God. You need to kill yourself."
He elaborated on this to me in an email. "I was in a downward spiral of major depression… I got up, ate breakfast, cleaned the house, kissed the family, went to work all day, paid the bills I could, ate dinner, kissed the family, went to sleep. Repeat. Over and over day in day out. Trying to keep my head above water while I stood in the quicksand of life. This is life? Life sucks. What's the point? Eat, work, sleep, have sex and pay bills? If that was life then life was stupid to me. On top of all that there's a chance you could get cancer and die a horrible death."
During this time, Wells would often go RC flying for hours at a stretch. He also began reading about the universe, and concluded that some higher power had to have been responsible for organizing all the world's atoms. He finally went to Church, and began reading the Bible—"not the stupid poetic King James Bible that can be twisted to mean whatever you want it to mean"—but the NLT, or New Living Translation, Bible. To his surprise, he found that it concurred with his impression of the world.
"This place sucks, we are infected by sin," the Bible told him. "We are held hostage here by Satan. But God is doing something to save us. He has a plan. My faith and hope is in that plan."
He concluded his email, "I'm trapped in a vessel made of atoms (FleshPilot) waiting for Jesus to come back and free me."
"You're the pilot. You're the one that ultimately makes the decision of who you give control over to, and what you do."
While Wells describes FPV as like being in another body—and catching a glimpse of yourself and the world from a new vantage point—he hesitated to describe the experience as one of total deliverance, a-la Paul.
"It's actually a lot more work than just being in your body," he told me. "I wish it was total freedom, but it's definitely not," he explained. "There are so many things going on: you're listening to the motors, making sure you're not going too far away." His posture in the video was perhaps less one of leaving one's body, and more one of concentrating intently. He said that it's actually when he's reviewing the video after a flight that he really gets that thrill.
The experience conjured by the "Fleshpilot" moniker is more subtle: the ability to see things from another perspective. Wells told me that he chose the name Fleshpilot because we are each the pilot of our own fleshy drone, our body. "You're piloting yourself, and if you choose to give control to something else to pilot you, you can do that. But you're the pilot. Y ou're the one that ultimately makes the decision of who you give control over to, and what you do."
Wells makes video in part because he wants viewers to see what he sees, to experience his sense of transcendence. "They are in my body. When I'm watching somebody else fly, I'm seeing what they're seeing, and watching the decisions that they are making." The lesson is clear. You can fly right or you can fly left, you can sin or you can stop yourself; it's up to you.
I asked whether flying drones had also helped him get through this period, or whether it was drones that eventually, somehow, led him to the Lord. He doesn't think so. To him, flying is often more stressful than calming. "Flying FPV is a lot of fun but it's a lot of anxiety because you don't want to crash." And he's wary of spending too much time and money on his hobby, lest he be distracted from the rest of his pursuits. "The devil will use anything to get you off focus," he said. "If he's going to use gambling, he'll use gambling, if he's going to use FPV, he'll use FPV."
Still, Wells is an active participant in the online hobby community and appears passionately invested in its wellbeing. He often gives out advice and technical tips on forums like DIY Drones, and gets worked up when he sees hobbyists breaking the FAA's regulations, which he thinks hurts the drone community in general. "If somebody is flying over a national park, I don't see any kind of beauty in that because they're breaking the law and they shouldn't be there. They're inspiring someone else to go break the law."
To Wells there is a certain creed associated with drone piloting; to violate it is to corrode the community and its values and its emphasis on safety. "To those of us who have been in it and helped it grow and taught and encouraged people how to fly safely, it is kind of sacred, and when Joe Blow, who doesn't know anything about anything, can just go down to the store and drop $2,000 and put it in the air and make a business card that says he's an aerial photographer now, it would be like me going down to the local airport and buying a Cessna and saying a pilot, when I'm not."
In spite of his serious defense of the FPV community, Wells has taken flack among online hobbyists for what some say is using FPV as a tool for preaching. But he maintains that Fleshpilot is not an evangelical project.
"I am an artist. This is another medium that I work in. I make videos to share with people. For the same reason I paint a picture. For people to look at and enjoy." But Fleshpilot is bigger than that: "the thing that makes my art different is that I know Jesus died for the person looking at my painting or watching my video and He loves them."
He hopes that his videos might serve as a channel for God to speak to the viewers. "I'm not going to force it down your throat. If people see it, that's awesome, if they like what I do, cool." I scoured his numerous posts on the hobbyist website DIY Drones and found no evidence of him proselytizing. He is a helpful, contributing member of the online drone hobbyist community. As Wells would have it, he's a Christian who happens to be an avid drone hobbyist. "Whatever you do, you do that for the Lord," he said.
And so he has also built a whole Christian life philosophy around and about FPV. For Wells, drones, and the flying of drones, is an analogy for life. "In life, not everything works out. You do everything right, you're still gonna crash." Wells's fascination with the inevitability of crashing means his drones are about as DIY as you can get. In one video, he explains how to turn a Tupperware into a protective casing for a tri-copter. (The video also features a prosthetic hand in a zip-loc bag sitting, inexplicably, on Wells's table). This is where Wells's view of flying for God makes the most sense.
"It's fun flying, it just sucks crashing. It's fun living, but it just sucks when you fail. Why live? You've got to go pick up the pieces, there's no quitting, you've got to put everything back together. You can't just quit your job, you can't just quit what you're doing after you fail. The sun comes up the next day and you've got to either kill yourself or move on."
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