The Jeff Wise Blog

World’s First Ornithopter Just Flew. Or Did It?

Something very cool happened last month. Early in the morning of August 2, a student at the University of Toronto took the control’s of the world’s first successful ornithopter — an aircraft that propels itself by flapping its wings like a bird — and flew for 19 seconds. As a lover of strange aircraft and impossible engineering challenges, I applaud the daring and stick-to-itevness of the University of Toronto team, which spent four years creating an incredibly beautiful machine. Here’s the video:

As is obvious from even a cursory viewing, flapping one’s wings is a very difficult way to generate lift. (That birds are so good at it should only renew our respect for the astonishing engineering feats of natural selection.) So the team deserves heartfelt kudos for managing to keep the craft in the air for even a short span of time. But did they really achieve, as a Canadian newspaper reported, “sustained and continuous flight”? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Aviation

It’s Not a Crash If the Plane’s Still in One Piece

I’m in Anchorage airport right now, waiting for my plane to take me home after a week spent reporting a bush flying story for Popular Mechanics. What, you ask, is bush flying? Well, I think this video explains better than any mere words:

I made this yesterday, shooting over the shoulder of veteran bush pilot Terry Holiday as he sets down his Super Cub on a tiny patch of gravel near the Knik Glacier north of Anchorage. As we were coming in, I was thinking: “Where exactly are you planning to put this thing down, Terry?” Yet oddly the experience didn’t feel that scary; Terry has such a natural feel for the airplane that I sensed that it would do exactly what he wanted. Having said that, the take off was even more extraordinary, as we bounced into the air and scrabbled for altitude as Terry guided the plane between a large hillock and the face of a cliff. Alaska — it’s always an adventure.

Filed under: Aviation

UPDATE: Breaking Coverage of John Graybill Story

For those following the John Graybill story, two well-reported stories about John and his final flight are now available online. In the Anchorage Daily News, Kyle Hopkins has fuller details of what happened in the runup to his fatal crash, including quotes from his daughter. And over at Alaska Dispatch, Craig Medred has an account of the controversy that swirled around the John Graybill legend.

Filed under: Aviation

Safer Bush Flying: The Technology Is There, But Will Pilots Use It?

Popular Mechanics has just put up a story I wrote as a follow-up to the John Graybill and Ted Stevens crashes, about how the technology exists to make bush flying much safer, but that for cultural reasons many pilots will not use it. I write:

The major killer in bush flying is what aviation pros call “VFR into IMC,” short for “visual flight rules into instrument meteorological conditions”—in other words, a pilot who is navigating by looking out the window suddenly finds himself in clouds. A pilot who isn’t trained to fly in a white-out can quickly become disoriented or crash into an unseen mountain or other obstacle (this nasty outcome has its own acronym, CFIT, for “controlled flight into terrain.”)

Ironically, Ted Stevens was a leading advocate for a new technology that might well have saved his life. Called ADS-B, for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, it relies on GPS receivers in each aircraft that broadcast their location to ground controllers and to other aircraft. When a precursor of the nationwide system, called Capstone, was rolled out in Alaska back in 1999, it was in great part due to the influence of Stevens, who was himself a pilot. The FAA spent hundreds of millions to build a network of ground stations and to buy ADS-B gear for both private and publicly owned airplanes. Inside the cockpit, the equipment displays uplinked vital information. “It gives them a cockpit display showing where they are in relation to bad weather and terrain,” says FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto. “Having that situational awareness cut the fatal accident rate for that type of aircraft almost in half.”

Yet Stevens’s plane was not equipped with ADS-B gear. And while it did have an alternate form of terrain-avoidance system, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says that it doesn’t know whether it was turned on or working. According to a recent Wall Street Journal profile, pilots that knew Theron Smith, Stevens’s pilot, said that he was an Alaskan pilot of the old school, liable to take risks that pilots in more civilized climes would look askance at, such as repeatedly flying the same approach to a socked-in airport over and over, below minimum prescribed altitudes, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the runway. One has to wonder how much attention old-school pilots would pay to a machine warning that he was flying too low.

Smith’s do-or-die attitude remains incredibly common in Alaska, where vast distances, rugged terrain, and a lack of detailed weather information mean that pilots still need to rely on their skills and savvy above all else. In a 1995 report on the hazards of flying in Alaska (pdf), the NTSB identified what it termed “bush syndrome,” or the willingness of pilots to take risks that would generally be considered unacceptable anywhere else. The report’s authors noted that 85 percent of the pilots they talked to admitted to flying VFR into IMC, and 85 percent said that they had done so intentionally, due to operational pressure.

You can read the whole thing here.

Filed under: Aviation

John Graybill’s National Geographic Adventure Profile

Since I put up my last post I’ve received several emails asking for the text of my 2001 article about John Graybill in National Geographic Adventure, since the link to that magazine’s website does not include the full text, I’m posting it here Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Aviation

Terrible News

By the darkest of dark coincidences, I have just learned that the very evening I happened to put up a post about John Graybill he died, along with his wife Dolly, in a crash in bad weather near McGrath, Alaska. As I write this I have just found out the news and am in a state of shock. John was a controversial figure in his day but friend and foe alike were in awe of his flying abilities. When I met him in 2000 his outlaw days were behind him, and even his old sparring partners at Fish and Game seemed to think of him as a favorite uncle. I found him to be a natural-born storyteller and a kind, gentle soul. He and Dolly welcomed me into their lives with the warmth of family.

And yes, John was an amazing pilot. Spending a week with him, zipping over the Alaskan landscape at 30 feet, inspired me to get my own pilot’s license, and that in turn has changed my life in ways I can’t begin to tally.

Filed under: Aviation

Welcome To New York, Suckaz!

Above is a map that passengers arriving at New York’s LaGuardia airport encounter upon first stepping out of the baggage claim area in the central terminal area. (I took it early this morning after arriving on a delayed flight from Toronto that had left me feeling dazed and unsure whether I might be mildly hallucinating.) Savvy airport users will recognize that it is in fact completely backwards — the correct map, from the Port Authority’s website, looks like this:

Presumably the Port Authority’s intention is to immediately disorient visitors, so that they can be more easily preyed upon by cunning locals. Or perhaps the maps were simply the work of the same people who designed the star map on the ceiling of Grand Central Station, which is also famously ass-backwards. Either way, it’s good to see that New York traditions are going strong.

Filed under: Aviation

Flying Cars, A Very Old Dream

I must confess, I have a soft spot for strange aircraft designs. Thus I was happy to see today’s Popular Mechanics post about the age-old quest for the flying car. The story says that the dream is “almost 70 years old,” but it’s even older than that. As the site Roadable Times points out, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss designed a flying car, the Curtiss Autoplane, back in 1917, and patented it in 1919. It was a crazy dream then, and it’s a crazy dream today.

Filed under: Aviation

Warning: Flying Cars May Appear Closer than They Are

Popular Mechanics has an opinion piece up on its website about why I don’t think the latest iteration of that long dreamed-of machine, the flying car, is all it’s cracked up to be:

We’ve covered the Terrafugia “Transition” flying car here before – as we wrote back in October, the two-seater aircraft has four wheels and four wheels that fold up so that it can be driven on the road. It also has a talent for attracting national publicity. The latest round came after the Federal Aeronautics Administration (FAA) issued a decision that seemed a major milestone in Terrafugia’s march to the marketplace. As the Discovery Channel reported in its article “Flying Car Gets FAA Approval,”

The Federal Aviation Administration has just removed a major hurdle from the path of a vehicle that may well be the first commercially viable flying car. The agency has agreed to classify the Terrafugia Transition as a Light Sport Aircraft [LSA], even though the vehicle is 120 pounds too heavy to qualify for that class.

At first reading, this seemed to imply that the FAA had agreed to certify the “Transition.” This indeed would be a newsworthy accomplishment for Terrafugia, and a major milestone in making roadable airplanes a reality.  But it also sounded a bit unlikely to us. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Aviation

I Want My Inflatable Airplane

From the good folks at AvWeb, a story about the Swiss ultralight design that’s something like a cross between a hang glider and a powered parachute — and also bears a family resemblance to my ultimate fantasy aircraft, the Goodyear Inflatoplane. This was an otherwise conventional airplane which happened to have wings and a fusalage made out of inflatable rubber. The idea was that if one of your pilots bailed out behind enemy lines you could drop this to him and he could blow it up and fly it to safety. (Then, presumably, use it as a pool toy once he’d gotten back home.) Like many of the coolest ideas in aviation, it was a long way from practical. Here’s what it looked like:

If nothing else, one imagines that the crashes would be less than catastrophic.

Filed under: Aviation

Interviews with the Author

Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

Also by Jeff Wise