kottke.org posts about flying
Yesterday, a video of a man dragged from an overbooked United flight because he wouldn’t give up his seat went viral. Public reaction to the incident and United’s subsequent fumbling of the aftermath has resulted in UAL’s stock falling several percentage points this morning:
The stock has rebounded slightly this afternoon and will probably fully recover within the next few weeks.
Also yesterday, a man walked into a San Bernardino elementary school and killed a teacher (his estranged wife) and an 8-year-old boy before shooting himself. The story has received very light national coverage, particularly in comparison to the United story. In response, the stock prices of gun companies were up a few percent this morning (top: American Outdoor Brands Corp which owns Smith & Wesson; bottom: Sturm, Ruger & Company):
This follows a familiar pattern of gun stock prices rising after shootings; Smith & Wesson’s stock price rose almost 9% after the mass shooting in Orlando last year.
Aviation expert Henk Hesselink thinks that airports should have circular runways instead of straight ones. Among other things, large circular runways could reduce the need for crosswind landings, use airport land more efficiently, and increase the number of planes simultaneously landing and taking off.
As part of these efforts, NLR has been involved in a European project called ‘The Endless Runway’. This radical new airport concept is based on the construction of a circular runway with a diameter of approx. 3.5 km around an airport terminal. Such an airport would take up only a third of the space of a conventional airport. Another advantage is that aircraft would always be able to take off and land independently of the wind direction, since there is always a point without crosswind on the circular runway. Landing aircraft can also be routed away from residential areas because they are not dependent on a standard approach path. Finally, the ‘Endless Runway’ concept will enable multiple aircraft to take off and land simultaneously, resulting in increased airport capacity.
According to Hesselink’s research, a circular runway as long as three normal runways (and the diameter of one runway) could handle the traffic of four normal runways. (thx, dad)
How much money does an airline make on a typical flight in the various classes of service? On some flights, revenue from first & business class seats can be up to 5 times that of economy seats. This video explores the economics of airline classes and looks at how we got to the present moment, where the people and companies buying business class and first class tickets are subsidizing those of us who fly economy.
The Cessna 172 has been in production since 1956 and the design is essentially the same now as it was then.
You might think this was a high-performance car with a little more-than-average leg room — but it’s a plane. The Cessna 172, which first rolled off the production line in 1956, is still in production today. And if any design could claim to be the world’s favourite aircraft, it’s the 172.
More than 43,000 Cessna 172s have been made so far. And while the 172 (also known as the Skyhawk) has undergone a myriad of tweaks and improvements over the past 60-odd years, the aircraft essentially looks much the same as it did when it was first built in the 1950s.
In the past 60 years, Cessna 172s have become a staple of flight training schools across the world. Generations of pilots have taken their first, faltering flights in a Cessna 172, and for good reason — it’s a plane deliberately designed to be easy to fly, and to survive less-than-accomplished landings.
The 172 was so durable, a pair of pilots kept one in the air continuously for more than 64 days.
Refuelling and resupplying the plane with food and water was an even bigger challenge. The Cessna had to fly close to the ground and match the speed of a car carrying supplies for the pilots — the reserve pilot would then lower a bucket so food and water could be put in it and then hoisted back up into the cabin. And twice a day, a fuel tanker drove underneath the Cessna and a hose was raised up to the aircraft. It filled up a belly tank especially installed for the flight, which then transferred fuel into the plane’s normal fuel tanks (and then the belly tank was topped up too). Even driving the resupply vehicles was a challenge — while one person steered, the other matched the speed of Timm and Cook’s Cessna by looking out of the window while keeping their foot on the accelerator. It was a good thing the flight took place in Nevada, with acres of flat, featureless desert outside the city boundaries.
My dad ran a small airline when I was a kid and one of his planes was a 172 built in 1964. I have a lot of fond memories of that 1721 — that was the plane he taught me how to fly when I was 5 or 6 years old, it’s the one he kept when his business folded in the early 80s, and he used it to come get me at college a few times. It was also the plane I last flew in with my dad.
One of the last times I went flying with my dad, before it finally became too expensive for him to keep up his plane, we were flying into a small airport where he still kept a hangar. It was a fine day when we set out but as we neared our destination, the weather turned dark. You could see the storm coming from miles away and we raced it to the airport. The wind had really picked up as we made our first approach to land; I don’t know what the windspeed was, but it was buffeting us around pretty good. About 50 feet off the ground, the wind slammed the plane downwards, dropping a dozen feet in half a second. In a calm voice, my dad said, “we’d better go around and try this again”.
As far as I know, he still has the 172 stashed away in a hangar somewhere. It hasn’t flown in probably 20 years, but I bet if you threw some gas in it and cranked ‘er up, it’d fly just fine. (via @jasonfried)
When you perfectly match a video camera’s frame rate to the rotation of a helicopter’s rotors as it takes off, it looks like it’s magically floating away on the breeze. Here’s an older video of the same effect that I probably posted back in the day. Here’s an explanation of the effect:
Since each frame has to ensure the blade is in the same position as the last it therefore needs to be in sync with the rpm of the rotar blades. Shutter speed then needs to be fast enough to freeze the blade without too much motion blur within each frame.
Here the rotor has five blades, now lets say the rpm of the rotor is 300. That means, per rotation, a blade is in a specific spot on five counts. That gives us an effective rpm of 1500. 1500rpm / 60secs = 25.
Therefore shooting at 25fps will ensure the rotor blades are shot in the same position every frame. Each frame then has to be shot at a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the blade for minimal motion blur.
This is basically the same technique used by John Edmark for his strobe light sculptures.
Mike Kelley has travelled to airports all over the world, photographing planes taking off and landing and then stitching them together into photos showing each airport’s traffic. (via @feltron whose book features an Airportrait on the cover)
A parking lot for airline employees has become a small community of people who live in motor homes and are rarely around.
Taking a back-road shortcut to catch a flight from Los Angeles two years ago, I passed an obscure airline employee parking lot — and was surprised to see over 70 motor homes. It looked like there was an entire community planted right there in the parking lot of the airport. I wondered, who lived there — and why?
I learned that this community was an employee parking lot turned motor-home park made up of pilots, flight attendants and mechanics. And I became fascinated by why and how the residents — people who may have flown us across the country, or walked us through emergency landing procedures — came to inhabit such an unusual place.
What a lovely little film. (via @JossFong)
First of all, they’re not actually black. (They’re orange.) They capture more than 80 types of on-board information, including the last two hours of cockpit voice communications. And someday, they might get replaced by uploading data to the cloud (a secure cloud, one hopes).
The B-2 stealth bomber has a length of 69 feet and a wingspan of 172 feet but possesses the radar profile of a large bird. How does the plane evade radar so effectively?
The app Flyover Country, built by a team at the University of Minnesota, uses GPS to tell you what interesting features you’re currently flying over.
Learn about the world along the path of your flight, hike, or road trip with GPS tracking. Offline geologic maps and interactive points of interest reveal the locations of fossils, core samples, and georeferenced Wikipedia articles visible from your airplane window seat, road trip, or hiking trail vista.
More on the app from Fast Company. (via @feltron whose book came out the other day!)
Mark Vanhoenacker is a pilot for British Airways and also the author of the well-reviewed Skyfaring, a book about the human experience of flight. Vanhoenacker recently shared six things he’s learned from being a pilot for the past 15 years.
I came up with the term “place lag” to refer to the way that airliners can essentially teleport us into a moment in a far-off city; getting us there much faster, perhaps, than our own deep sense of place can travel. I could be in a park in London one afternoon, running, or drinking a coffee and chatting to the dog-walkers. Later I’ll go to an airport, meet my colleagues, walk into a cockpit, and take off for Cape Town. I’ll fly over the Pyrenees and Palma and see the lights of Algiers come on at sunset, then sail over the Sahara and the Sahel. I’ll cross the equator, and dawn will come to me as I parallel the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, and finally I’ll see Table Mountain in the distance as I descend to the Mother City.
Then, less than an hour after the long-stilled wheels of the 747 were spun back to life by the sun-beaten surface of an African runway, I’ll be on a bus heading into Cape Town, sitting in rush hour traffic, on an ordinary morning in which, glancing down through the windshield of a nearby car, I’ll see a hand lift a cup of coffee or reach forward to tune the radio. And I’ll think: All this would still be going on if I hadn’t flown here. And that’s equally true of London, and of all the other cities I passed in the long night, that I saw only the lights of. For everyone, and every place, it’s the present.
Pilot Bobby Breeden recently set the official world record for shortest combined distance for takeoff and landing. Flying a single-engine taildragger plane (a Super Cub?), Breeden took off using only 24 feet of runway and landed in just 20 feet.
I’ve covered STOL (short takeoff and landing) aircraft on the site before…they are amazing. This Super Cub even landed on the side of a snowy mountain. I mean, fuuuuuuu… (via @gak_pdx)
David McCullough (Truman, John Adams, Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award) recently published a new book on The Wright Brothers. James Salter has a nice review in the New York Review of Books.
They knew exactly the importance of what they had accomplished. They knew they had solved the problem of flight and more. They had acquired the knowledge and the skill to fly. They could soar, they could float, they could dive and rise, circle and glide and land, all with assurance.
Now they had only to build a motor.
Update: British Pathe has footage of a flight by the Wright Brothers:
It’s labelled “First Flight” but the footage is actually from much later…that is clearly not Kitty Hawk and the first two-person flights did not occur until 1908. It is also unclear whether Orville and Wilbur were flying together in the video. From Salter’s piece:
He and Wilbur had never flown together so that if there were ever a fatal accident it would not involve both of them, and one of them would live to continue the work. On that one occasion, they took off to fly together, with Orville at the controls, side by side.
If the footage is from the flight Salter describes, that would make it from 1910. (via @SavageReader)
This rule never seems to make it into any of the pre-flight checklists: please remove all cats from inside your wings before takeoff.
If you are ever down and need an instant pick-me-up, watch this video of an aerobatic pilot doing tricks with his daughter as a passenger for the first time and your mood will improve greatly. The good stuff starts at about 50 seconds in.
Oh my, that laugh! (via @ianpierce)
Growing up, I had a pretty conventional childhood. In the northern Wisconsin of the 70s and 80s, that meant living in the country, dogs and cats, making ramps for our bikes in the driveway, Oscar Meyer bologna sandwiches for lunch, and a nuclear family of four that split into two soon after Ronald Reagan took office. But conventional childhoods are a myth. Every kid has some weird thing that distinguished their experience from everyone else’s. My weird thing is that I spent a lot of time in and around airplanes when I was young.
My dad joined the Navy after high school but couldn’t fly because of his eyesight. But sometime later, he got his private pilot’s license. In the 1970s, after bouncing around between two dozen different jobs and business ideas, he took a small rented airplane and turned it into a thriving freight and commuter airline called Blue Line Air Express.1 At its height, his company had 8 planes, a small fleet of cars and trucks,2 more than a dozen employees, and hangars at several different airports around northern WI. He and his employees delivered packages and people3 all over the tri-state area, from Chicago and Milwaukee to Minneapolis and Duluth.
And every once in awhile, I got to tag along. I remember one time in particular, we got up early on a Saturday, drove to a nearby town, hopped in the plane, and made it to Minneapolis, usually a two-hour drive, in time for breakfast. I’d go with him on deliveries sometimes; we’d drive a small piece-of-shit truck4 up to this huge FedEx hub in Minneapolis, load it full of boxes, and drive an hour to some small factory in a Wisconsin town and unload it. Once he had to deliver something to a cheese factory and my sister and I got a short tour out of it.
For family vacations, we would jump in the plane to visit relatives in the Twin Cities or in St. Louis. We flew down with some family friends to Oshkosh to attend the huge airshow. When I was in college, my dad would sometimes pick me up for school breaks in his plane. It was just a normal thing for our family, like anyone else would take a car trip. The only time it seems weird to me is when people’s eyes go wide after I casually mention that we had a runway out behind the house growing up.5
One of the last times I went flying with my dad, before it finally became too expensive for him to keep up his plane,6 we were flying into a small airport where he still kept a hangar. It was a fine day when we set out but as we neared our destination, the weather turned dark.7 You could see the storm coming from miles away and we raced it to the airport. The wind had really picked up as we made our first approach to land; I don’t know what the windspeed was, but it was buffeting us around pretty good. About 50 feet off the ground, the wind slammed the plane downwards, dropping a dozen feet in half a second. In a calm voice, my dad said, “we’d better go around and try this again”.8
The storm was nearly on top of us as we looped around to try a second time. It was around this time he announced, even more calmly, that we were “running a little low” on fuel. Nothing serious, you understand. Just “a little low”. There was a heavy crosswind, blowing perpendicular to the runway. Landing in a crosswind requires the pilot to point the airplane into the wind a little.9 Or more than a little…my memory probably exaggerates after all these years, but I swear we were at least 30 degrees off axis on that second approach. Just before touching down, he oriented the plane with the runway and the squawk of the tires let us know we were down. I don’t think it was much more than a minute or two after landing that the rain, thunder, and lightning started.10
But the thing was, I was never scared. I should have been probably…it was an alarming situation. I’d been flying with my dad my whole life and he’d kept me safe that whole time, so why should I start worrying now? That’s what fathers are supposed to do, right? Protect their children from harm while revealing the limits of the world?
Mark Vanhoenacker is a Boeing 747-400 pilot for British Airways who also happens to have a wonderful almost lyrical way with words. In this NY Times piece, Vanhoenacker gives an overview of how a London-to-Tokyo flight functions, from take-off & landings to what pilots see in the dark night skies to the determination of altitude.
Three altimeters in the cockpit — two bright digital readouts, and one old-school device with hands that turn like those of a clock — show 31,000 feet.
Yet we know that we are probably not as close to 31,000 feet as these altimeters suggest. We are somewhat lower; or perhaps we are higher. One thing is certain — it would be easy to find a dozen airliners flying over different parts of the world, all of whose altimeters displayed 31,000 feet, none of which are at the same altitude.
How is this possible?
Planes calculate their altitude by measuring air pressure. The air lies most heavily on places that are lowest, the places that have the most air piled above them. A barometric altimeter (baros, meaning weight) equates high air pressure — lots of air weighing down — with low altitude. As a plane climbs, there is less air above it. The altimeter senses less air weight and reports a higher altitude.
There’s a problem, however. Air pressure is not constant. It varies across the Earth. It also varies in each place as time and weather pass.
And I love this bit about the names of the geographic waypoints used to navigate the area around Boston:
Boston has etched a particularly rich constellation onto the heavens above New England. There is PLGRM, of course; CHWDH, LBSTA and CLAWW; GLOWB and HRALD for the city’s newspapers; while SSOXS, FENWY, BAWLL and OUTTT trace the fortunes of the city’s baseball team in long arcs across the stars. There’s a NIMOY waypoint; Leonard was born in Boston.
The piece is adapted from Vanhoenacker’s new book, Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. My dad was a professional pilot for many years1 and I’ve always loved flying, so I’m definitely going to give this a read.
A group of astronomy enthusiasts rented a plane and flew through the shadow cast by the recent eclipse of the Sun. One passenger took the following video. Look at that shadow creeping across the cloud cover! So cool.
P.S. Still super excited for the 2017 eclipse! (via slate)
The Cooper Review unveils Delta Airlines’ new seating chart, including several new sections like Economy Discomfort and Where Is Your God Now? Economy. Also clearly marked are crying babies and passengers eating smelly sandwiches.
Are you ready for a new level of discomfort in air travel? A major US airline is considering a seating class called Economy Minus, which would offer smaller seats at a lower price.
Now a major airline may be considering another breakthrough idea: “Economy Minus,” a seat that offers less legroom at a discount price.
Before you scoff, consider that a new survey found that 42% of airline travelers said they would be very likely or somewhat likely to book a seat with less legroom if it means getting a cheap fare.
See also Why Airlines Want to Make You Suffer. (A: maximizing shareholder value)
In 2012, Joe Ayoob broke the world record for the longest distance paper airplane flight with a plane designed by John Collins. In this video, Collins demonstrates how to fold that plane, the Suzanne.
Directions for the design are also available in Collins’ New World Champion Paper Airplane Book.
In 1959, Lt Colonel William Rankin ejected from his F-8 Crusader at 47,000 feet. He was not wearing a pressure suit, which was a bummer because it was -58 °F outside the cockpit. Frostbite and symptoms of decompression1
immediately ensued. But his troubles were just beginning.
As the parachute opened, he felt the familiar tug upwards. Except instead of a slow descent, he experienced a rapid ascent. The powerful updraft filled his parachute like a sail and rocketed him vertically thousands of feet at a velocity of nearly 100 mph. During his ascent, he could see hail stones forming around him. The lightning was described by him as “blue blades several feet thick” and incredibly close. The thunder was so loud, he could feel it resonating in his chest cavity and remembered this more so than how loud it was. At one point, the lightning lit up his parachute leading him to believe he had died. The rain would pelt him from all directions, and at times was so intense, he had to hold his breath for fear of drowning. But this was only half the agony — the other half being the downdrafts.
Once the updraft exhausted itself, the associated downdraft would ensue. It was during this phase of his journey that he truly thought he would die. His parachute would collapse around him, much like a wet blanket, and plunge him into a rapid free fall towards earth. The odds of his parachute re-inflating correctly were slim, but not only did it do so once, it did numerous times through a multitude of updraft and downdraft cycles.
Under normal conditions, Rankin’s trip to the ground would have taken less than 10 minutes, but that thunderstorm kept him hostage for 40 minutes. (via @BadAstronomer)
Update: In 1966, pilot Bill Weaver and his navigator Jim Zwayer were testing an SR-71 Blackbird when something went wrong and the plane disintegrated around its occupants. Weaver was incredibly lucky to make it out alive.
My next recollection was a hazy thought that I was having a bad dream. Maybe I’ll wake up and get out of this mess, I mused. Gradually regaining consciousness, I realized this was no dream; it had really happened. That also was disturbing, because I could not have survived what had just happened. Therefore, I must be dead. Since I didn’t feel bad — just a detached sense of euphoria — I decided being dead wasn’t so bad after all. As full awareness took hold, I realized I was not dead, but had somehow separated from the airplane. I had no idea how this could have happened; I hadn’t initiated an ejection. The sound of rushing air and what sounded like straps flapping in the wind confirmed I was falling, but I couldn’t see anything. My pressure suit’s face plate had frozen over and I was staring at a layer of ice.
Great piece about how Lufthansa cares for those who need medical attention while flying.
On a Lufthansa flight, making a public call for any medical professionals on the plane is a last resort. The airline prefers to be far more discreet. After all, does the whole plane always need to know that somebody on board is having a problem? To accomplish this, Lufthansa launched the Doctors on Board program for physicians.
Doctors on Board allows Lufthansa to identify doctors long before an emergency occurs. By doing this, the cabin crews can personally and discreetly summon the doctor if their skills are needed during a flight. In order to find doctors who could potentially participate in this program, the airline scoured the data from its Miles and More frequent flier program. By doing this, Lufthansa was able to identify 15,000 doctors who regularly fly the airline. Of those, 10,000 opted to join the program.
Participation in the Doctors on Board program carries with it several benefits. The doctors are issued a handbook about aviation medicine, as well as receiving news and information via both the internet and postal mailings. They are insured by Lufthansa for any care that they provide during a flight. They are also rewarded with 5,000 Miles and More award miles and a discount code for €50 off of their next flight, plus they receive a special bag tag identifying their participation in the program. Finally, they are given the opportunity to participate in a course on aviation medicine and on-board emergency handling, for which they are paid an additional fee.
This is real customer service: thoughtful, anticipatory, active, thorough. (via @marcprecipice)
Derek Low used a ton of his frequent flyer miles to book passage from Singapore to NYC in Singapore Airlines’ better-than-first-class Suites Class and wrote all about it. Suites Class = private cabin, double bed, caviar, foie gras, lounging beforehand in “The Private Room”, Dom Pérignon, Givenchy pajamas, etc. etc.
In the Suites, you don’t just lie on a seat that has gone flat. Instead, you step aside while the Singapore Airlines flight attendants transform your Suite into a bedroom, with a plush mattress on top of a full-sized bed. When the adjacent suite is empty, the dividing partition can be brought down to create a double bed.
Update: After reports of plagiarism from several sources after Low published his initial version of his piece, he changed the pilfered text and removed photos taken from elsewhere. (thx, all)
In celebration of National Aviation Day, In Focus has a slideshow of photos of the Wright Brothers’ first flights.
The caption on that photo reads:
First flight: 120 feet in 12 seconds, on December 17, 1903. This photograph shows man’s first powered, controlled, sustained flight. Orville Wright at the controls of the machine, lying prone on the lower wing with hips in the cradle which operated the wing-warping mechanism. Wilbur Wright running alongside to balance the machine, has just released his hold on the forward upright of the right wing. The starting rail, the wing-rest, a coil box, and other items needed for flight preparation are visible behind the machine. Orville Wright preset the camera and had John T. Daniels squeeze the rubber bulb, tripping the shutter.
The Wright Brothers were 32 & 36 years old when they made their first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. The Wright Flyer was not the product of daring youthful innovation (as with Picasso, Bill Gates, or Mozart) but rather of years of experience and experimentation (like Cezanne, Twain, or Frank Lloyd Wright).
Great piece from Craig Mod about how to survive air travel.
Authorities recommend arriving two hours before international flights. I say four. Get there four hours before your flight. You are a hundred and fifty years old. Your friends laugh at you. Have patience.
Arrive early and move through the airport like the Dalai Lama. You are in no rush. All obstacles are taken in stride, patiently, with a smile. Approach the nearly empty check-in counter. Walk up and say, I’m a bit early but I’m here to check in to … Marvel at their surprise and then their generosity. Suddenly you are always able to get an exit row or bulkhead seat. Suddenly, sure, they can slip you into Business. Suddenly tickets that are supposedly unchangeable, cannot be modified, are, after a few calls, some frowns, upbeat goodbyes, specially modifiable for you. This is what happens when there is no one behind you in line to check in.
What Mod fails to mention here in regard to supposedly unchangeable tickets and the like is that he’s one of the most disarmingly charming motherfuckers in the entire world. And here is the crux of the whole piece:
You are hacking the airport by arriving early, knowing that all the work you could have done at home — the emails or writing or photo editing — can be done at the airport.
I don’t travel much anymore, but I’ve begun to arrive at the airport earlier than I need to because I got tired of rushing and I can work from pretty much anywhere with wifi. That mask shit though? That’s too much.
In Brazil’s National Air and Space Museum, there is a golden globe containing the preserved heart of Alberto Santos-Dumont, a man who thought he beat the Wright Brothers in building and flying the first heavier-than-air flying machine. Santos-Dumont’s first success was with dirigibles; at the turn of the century, he would regularly use his personal airship to fly to dinner or to visit friends.
Imagine the frenetic pace of life in belle époque Paris. Automobiles appearing on the streets, attracting huge crowds. The telegraph bringing news from all over the world. Cafés playing phonographs while their patrons drank absinthe and cocaine wine. Now imagine a Parisian walking the streets in the early morning, in a time where an automobile was still a fascinating novelty, and then suddenly, a small airship appears floating just above the street. A crowd would gather to see the aviator driving his Baladeuse (The Wanderer), a personal sized dirigible, over the streets as if it were a carriage or automobile. Santos-Dumont would then land in front of his favorite café, tie the guide rope much like one might tie a horse to a hitching post, and walk in for a meal. It must have been quite a sight. Going to the café was not the only time Santos-Dumont used his Baladeuse — he was also fond of surprising his friends by landing in front of their porches with his airship.
Paul Hoffman wrote a well-reviewed book about Santos-Dumont called Wings of Madness.
The latest installment of the In Focus series on WWI is Aerial Warfare.
Great series so far, really enjoying it. Start from the beginning if you haven’t seen it yet.
What do you do when you have a seaplane without wheels, no water, and you need to take off? You put it on a trailer, drag it down the runway until you get the proper speed, and just pull back on the stick:
Damn, that’s cool. I knew it was gonna take off and it still baked my noodle a little bit. I think this is why so many people (myself included) had trouble with the airplane on the treadmill question. All that really matters for takeoff and continued flight is the speed of the plane relative to the air — how it gets to that point or what the surface is doing isn’t really relevant — but when you’re observing it, it seems impossible. (via @deronbauman)
Ok, bear with me here…this is a video of a helicopter harvesting Christmas trees in Oregon. But the pace at which the pilot is moving those trees into the trucks is almost literally unbelievable.
(via @jchristopher & @cdevroe)
Update: And here’s the helicopter cockpit view from a similar harvest: