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kottke.org posts about flying

The Flying Martha, a wind-up flying passenger pigeon

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 21, 2017

Flying Martha

Design studio Haptic Lab just launched a Kickstarter campaign for The Flying Martha Ornithopter, a rubber-band-powered passenger pigeon that flies by flapping its paper wings.

Made in the likeness of the extinct passenger pigeon, the Flying Martha is symbolic of humanity’s role in a rapidly changing world. The passenger pigeon was once the most numerous bird species on the planet, with an estimated population of 3-5 billion birds. No one could have imagined that the entire species would disappear in one human lifetime. Extinctions will become more commonplace in the next century as the climate crisis deepens. But we’re still hopeful that a balance is possible; the passenger pigeon is a symbol of that hope.

The Flying Martha, named after the last known passenger pigeon, has wings made of mulberry paper, a wingspan of 16 inches, and weighs only 12.5 grams. I ordered one, ostensibly for my kids, but who am I kidding here…I’m really looking forward to playing with this.

A Blue Angels jet surprises a crowd with a low pass

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 24, 2017

Sunday at The Chicago Air and Water Show, a Blue Angels combat jet flew very low past an unsuspecting crowd and surprised the bejeezus out of some folks. It’s worth watching this video on a large screen multiple times while focusing on the reaction of a different person each time. You can see how low and fast the plane was flying from another angle. They also flew between the buildings downtown.

Viewing a total solar eclipse from an airplane

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 18, 2017

On March 8-9, 2016, a total solar eclipse swept across the Pacific Ocean for more than 5 hours. About a year before the eclipse, Hayden Planetarium astronomer Joe Rao realized Alaska Airlines flight 870 from Anchorage to Honolulu would pass right through the path of totality…but 25 minutes too early. Rao called the airline and convinced them to shift the flight time.

Alaska’s fleet director, Captain Brian Holm, reviewed the proposed flight path and possible in-route changes to optimize for the eclipse. The schedule planning team pushed back the departure time by 25 minutes, to 2 p.m.

On the day of the flight, Dispatch will develop the specific flight plan, to find the most efficient route and account for weather and wind. Maintenance and maintenance control will help make sure the plane is ready to go — they even washed all the windows on the right side of the plane.

Captain Hal Andersen also coordinated with Oceanic Air Traffic Control, to make them aware that the flight might require a few more tactical changes then normal.

“The key to success here is meeting some very tight time constraints — specific latitudes and longitudes over the ocean,” Andersen said. “With the flight management computer, it’s a pretty easy challenge, but it’s something we need to pay very close attention to. We don’t want to be too far ahead or too far behind schedule.”

The video was shot by a very excited Mike Kentrianakis of the American Astronomical Society, who has witnessed 20 solar eclipses during his lifetime.

July 11, 2010. That was the eclipse over Easter Island, the one for which hotel room rates were so high that there was no way Kentrianakis could afford it. Instead, he considered attempting a trip to Argentina, where experts predicted there was a 5 percent chance of clear skies. His wife at the time, Olga, urged him not to go — it’s not worth the expense, she insisted. Reluctantly, Kentrianakis stayed home.

“It was the beginning of the end for us,” Kentrianakis says. There were problems in the marriage before that episode, “but it affected me that I felt that she didn’t really appreciate what I loved.” They were divorced the following year.

Kentrianakis doesn’t like to dwell on this, or the other things he’s given up to chase eclipses. He knows his bosses grumbled about the missed days of work. Friends raise their eyebrows at the extremes to which he goes. He’s unwilling to admit how much he’s spent on his obsession.

“There is a trade-off for everything, for what somebody wants,” he says.

A camera on the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite captured the eclipse’s shadow as it moved across the Earth:

For this year’s eclipse, Alaska Airlines is doing a special charter flight for astronomy nerds and eclipse chasers. Depending on how this eclipse goes, seeing an eclipse from an airplane might be on my bucket list for next time. (via @coudal)

Night time lapse of the Milky Way from an airplane cockpit

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 28, 2017

Sales Wick is a pilot for SWISS and while working an overnight flight from Zurich to Sao Paulo, he filmed the first segment of the flight from basically the dashboard of the plane and made a timelapse video out of it. At that altitude, without a lot of light and atmospheric interference, the Milky Way is super vivid.

Just as the bright city lights are vanishing behind us, the Milky Way starts to become clearly visible up ahead. Its now us, pacing at almost the speed of sound along the invisible highway and the pitch-black night sky above this surreal landscape. Ahead of us are another eight hours flight time, but we already stopped counting the shooting stars. And we got already to a few hundred.

I watched this twice already, once to specifically pay attention to all the passing airplanes. The sky is surprisingly busy, even at that hour. (via @ozans)

Update: Several people asked if this was fake or digitally composited (the Milky Way and ground footage shot separately then edited together). I don’t know for sure, but I doubt it. The answer lies in the camera Wick used to shoot this, the Sony a7S. It’s really good in low-light conditions, better than many more expensive professional cameras even. As the last bit of this Vox video explains, the camera is so good in low light that the BBC used it to capture some night scenes for Planet Earth II. Here’s a screen-capped comparison at 6400 ISO from that video:

Sony A7s Compare

And the full scene at 32000 ISO:

Sony A7s Compare

That’s pretty amazing, right? Wick himself says on his site:

I had to take many attempts and a lot of trying to figure it out. Basically the challenge is to keep shutter speed as fast as possible in order to get razor sharp images. While you can use the 500 or 600 rule on ground this doesn’t work out the same way while being up in the sky. Well of course basically it does if you dont fly perpendicular to the movement of the night sky but even if its really smooth there are usually some light movements of the aircraft. So depending on the focal length of your lense you can get exposure times between 15” to 1”. Thats why you will need a camera that can handle high iso. Thats where the A7s comes into play and of course a ver fast lense. The rest is a good mounting and some luck. Last but not least you need to keep the flight deck as dark as possible to get the least reflections…and the rest is magic ;)

The stock market’s reaction to United debacle vs a school shooting

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 11, 2017

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:

Ual Stock 2017

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):

Amer Outdoor Stock 2017

Sturm Ruger Stock 2017

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.

Update: It took about three and a half weeks, but on May 2, United’s stock had regained all of the value “lost” due to the incident and subsequent PR blunders. As of this writing (May 3 at 12:41 PM ET), UAL is actually up about 3.5% from the closing price before the incident.

The endless circular airport runway

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 10, 2017

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)

The economics of airline classes

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 17, 2017

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, the world’s most popular small airplane

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 06, 2017

Cessna 172

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)

  1. Maybe other people name their planes, but my dad didn’t. His stable of aircraft included “the 172”, “the 401”, “the Aztek”, and the “Cherokee 6”…those are the ones I remember anyway.

A magically levitating helicopter, courtesy of a camera frame rate trick

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 06, 2017

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.

Airportraits

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 18, 2016

Airportrait

Airportrait

Airportrait

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)

An airport parking lot is an improvised village

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 12, 2016

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)

How do airplane black boxes work?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 21, 2016

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).

How do stealth aircraft avoid radar detection?

posted by Jason Kottke   May 31, 2016

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?

Exploring flyover country on your phone

posted by Jason Kottke   May 27, 2016

Grand Canyon Plane

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!)

Lessons from a 747 pilot

posted by Jason Kottke   May 04, 2016

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.

Taking off and landing a plane with just 44 feet of runway

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 18, 2015

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)

The invention of the era of flight

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 11, 2015

Wright first flight

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)

Cat goes on unexpected flight

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 22, 2015

This rule never seems to make it into any of the pre-flight checklists: please remove all cats from inside your wings before takeoff.

(via @holgate)

Airplane aerobatics are hilarious

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 16, 2015

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)

Flying with my dad

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 15, 2015

Me Dad Flying

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.

Blue Line Air Express Logo

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

Backyard Runway

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?

  1. The internet is amazing. I originally wrote this piece for Quarterly as part of a physical package of stuff that was sent out to subscribers. While doing some research for it, I found an image of an old Blue Line brochure, which I distinctly remember from when I was a kid. From there, I was able to figure out the font and recreate the logo. Two of the items in my Quarterly package featured the logo: a balsa-wood airplane and a leather luggage tag. Blue Line flies again! It was very satisfying to use my professional skills (internet sleuthing and design) to “resurrect” my dad’s old business.

  2. There was a car or two stashed at every airport Blue Line regularly flew in to. To simplify the logistics, the key to the ignition was usually left under the rear wheel well of the car. Which was occasionally a problem w/r/t disgruntled former employees.

  3. Living and dead…transporting cadavers was a particularly lucrative business.

  4. My dad’s fleet of cars and trucks were optimized for cost and performance…if you could load 1200 pounds of boxes into something without busting the springs and get it there at 80 MPH on the freeway, it didn’t matter if the fenders were rusted off.

  5. Oh, did I not mention that earlier? We lived on a farm and rented out all the land to nearby farmers…all except the runway that my dad had cut into the field behind the house so that he could commute by plane to whatever airport he needed to be at that day. As you do.

  6. Blue Line went out of business soon after my parents divorced, but my dad kept a plane and a hangar. Sometimes he transported freight for money but mostly just flew as a hobby and transportation. Private piloting was cheaper back then, especially when your plane was long since paid for, the price of gas was obscenely low by today’s standards, gear/radios were cheaper, and you were also a mechanic (as my dad was).

  7. The Midwest is like this in the summer. Radar shows nothing, then, boom, thunderstorm.

  8. That droningly relaxed pilot voice you hear while thumbing through the latest issue of the inflight magazine? My dad never talked like that outside of an airplane but every single thing he said inside one sounded unbelievably steady and serene.

  9. It is seriously weird that the runway you’re landing on is not directly in front of you. This video gives you a taste of what it’s like. Start at the 3:10 mark…that’s some crazy sideways flying.

  10. And this is far from the craziest thing that ever happened to my dad while flying. Once we had to go pick him up in a nearby corn field after an emergency landing.

    But my favorite story he tells is when he landed on a runway in winter in a twin-engine plane and discovered shortly afterwards that the entire surface was black ice. So the brakes didn’t work. And it was too late to throttle up again and take off. And there’s a lake at the end of the runway. Thinking quickly, he throttles up one of the engines, spins the plane around 180 ° on the ice, and then throttles up both engines to stop the plane. That sounds like total action movie BS, but my dad insists it really happened. Regardless, I love to hear him tell that story.

In Flight

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 01, 2015

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.

  1. I wrote about my dad’s aviation career for one of my Quarterly packages. I should dig that up and publish it here…it’s a good story.

Flying through an eclipse

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 24, 2015

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)

Seating chart for Hell Airlines

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 06, 2015

Airplane seating map from Hell

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.

Economy Minus

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 30, 2014

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)

How to fold the world’s best paper airplane

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 18, 2014

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.

The Man Who Rode the Thunder

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 09, 2014

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.

(via @axlotl)

  1. “The sudden decompression caused his stomach to swell, his ears, nose and mouth to bleed, and the only thing keeping him conscious was his O2 canister attached to his helmet.”

Lufthansa’s air care

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 02, 2014

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)

What It’s Like to Fly the $18,000 Singapore Airlines Suites Class

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 01, 2014

Singapore Air Suites

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.

(via df)

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)

The Wright Brothers’ first flight

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2014

In celebration of National Aviation Day, In Focus has a slideshow of photos of the Wright Brothers’ first flights.

Wright First Flight

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).

How to survive air travel

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 23, 2014

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.