In 1910, Harry Houdini magically flew over a field near Melbourne, Australia. OK, he was in an airplane. But I hadn't known that the great magician was an aviation enthusiast. Houdini's demonstration was the first heavier-than-air flight in Australia. Apparently, it was a real nail-biter that ended in success. Now, Smithsonian Air & Space reports on the effort to find Houdini's plane, if it still exists.
He flew a Voisin biplane that he’d bought in Germany the year before. Powered by a British ENV engine capable of 60 to 80 horsepower, it sailed over trees, rocks, and fences, reported the Melbourne Argus, then wavered slightly. “Ah! Cabre, cabre!” shouted Antonio Brassac, Houdini’s French mechanic. “The word signifies the action of a rearing horse,” continued the Argus, “and it indicates that the plane, like the horse, will almost inevitably come to grief.”
Boeing and the US Air Force have converted retired F-16 fighter jets into drones, designated as QF-16s. According to Boeing, "While in the air, the QF-16 mission included a series of simulated maneuvers, reaching supersonic speeds, returning to base and landing, all without a pilot in the cockpit." The military claims that they will use the drones for dogfight training. Video of the first pilotless test flight below. (Thanks, David Steinberg!)
"Controlled flight into terrain" is a term that refers to an airplane crash where a pilot accidentally directs an airplane right into the ground (or a hill, or the water, or anything else, really). CFITs tend to happen in bad weather, or when guidance equipment fails in a key way that isn't noticed by the people using that equipment to land or take off in a plane. In 1936, a deposed German prince — Adolf II of Schaumburg-Lippe — died when his airplane took a CFIT ... into a volcano. — Maggie
Rows of industrial 3D-printing units in plants will soon be fabricating turbine engine parts—fuel nozzles—from cobalt-chromium alloy powders. Each one of GE’s new LEAP jet engine will contain nineteen of the fuel nozzles, which are up to 25 percent lighter and five-times more durable than traditionally manufactured fuel nozzles. In airplanes cutting weight saves fuel. The LEAP engine has already amassed more than 4,500 orders, so between it and the new GE9X engine, the corporation could end up making as many as 100,000 additive manufactured components by 2020.
In the picture above, you can see one of those fuel nozzles, in all its 3D-printed glory.
Okay, sure, jet travel accounts for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions (this is situation where a small percentage is actually a really big number, fyi). So this is maybe more ironic than tragic, but it turns out that some scientists think changing climates could have an effect on air turbulence. Specifically, one model suggests it will increase the ferocity and frequency of surprise areas of turbulence that pilots can't see coming. — Maggie
I'm a nervous flyer. But I'm a lot better at it then I used to be. That's because, a few years ago, I learned that it's actually pretty common to survive a plane crash. Like most people, I'd assumed that the safety in flying came from how seldom accidents happened. Once you were in a crash situation, though, I figured you were probably screwed. But that's not the case.
Looking at all the commercial airline accidents between 1983 and 2000, the National Transportation Safety Board found that 95.7% of the people involved survived. Even when they narrowed down to look at only the worst accidents, the overall survival rate was 76.6%. Yes, some plane crashes kill everyone on board. But those aren't the norm. So you're even safer than you think. Not only are crashes incredibly rare, you're more likely to survive a crash than not. In fact, out of 568 accidents during those 17 years, only 71 resulted in any fatalities at all.
I was talking about this fact with a pilot friend over the weekend, and he mentioned one crash in particular that is an excellent example of the statistics in action. On July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 lost all its hydraulic controls and landed in Sioux City, Iowa, going more than 100 mph faster than it should have been. You can see the plane breaking apart and bursting into flames in the video above. Turns out, that's what a 62% survival rate looks like. (All the pilots you can hear talking in the video survived, too.)
In 2007, Popular Mechanics examined 36 years of NTSB reports and found that the majority of surviving passengers were sitting in the back of the plane. But that seems to depend a lot on the specifics of the crash and may not be a reliable predictor of future results.
Do they still make children's books with sad endings? Like The Velveteen Rabbit? Because I think I've got a doozy here.
It's all about a 747 who loves to fly. It's what she was built to do and it's what she does best. For years, she soars through the skies, ferrying cargo and, possibly, some nondescript men in nice suits. (Or maybe not. Depends on when she went into service.) But through it all, the little 747 just wants to spend as much time as she can aloft, among the clouds, where she belongs.
But then, one day, the nondescript men in nice suits tell her that it's time she retire. They take her to a place in the desert and leave her there, with lots of other retired planes who've given up and are slowly falling apart. Other men come and they take her engines. Then they take all the beautiful buttons and switches from cockpit. The other planes tell her that, soon, men will come with saws to cut away parts of her fuselage. But the little 747 never breaks. They can take her apart, bit by bit, but they can't take away her dreams. And still, sometimes, in the boneyard, she tries to take to the skies just one last time.
A family from Washington state had to cancel an island vacation when their flight was grounded after their 3-year-old son pitched a tantrum.
The toddler had been quietly playing with an iPad while waiting for the plane to take off, the father said. When the iPad was taken away—you know how all electronics must be stowed during takeoff and landing—all hell broke loose.
Here's a story that combines two favorite bits of volcano news into one interesting discovery. You know those great, freaky photos of volcanic lightning? (In case you don't, I've got one posted above.) Remember how the Icelandic volcanic eruptions totally screwed up everybody's airplane travel plans?
Apparently, studying volcanic lightning could lead to better eruption detection systems that could make it easier to predict how big a plume of ash off that volcano will be—knowledge that can help airlines and travelers be better prepared. At Nature, Richard Monastersky reports:
The researchers found that the amount of lightning correlated with the height of the plume, something they could not test using more limited data collected during an eruption at Alaska’s Mount St Augustine in 2006. This observation is important, says Behnke, because systems to monitor lightning could provide an estimate for the size of an eruption, which is not always easy to assess for remote volcanoes.
During a previous eruption at Mount Redoubt in 1989 and 1990, for example, the size of the plume wasn’t known and a plane nearly crashed after passing through the ash cloud and temporarily losing all power from its engines. Behnke and her colleagues suggest that VHF stations similar to the ones they installed at Mount Redoubt could be used to monitor volcanoes to give early warning of an eruption and an estimate of its size.
My new obsession: Cockpit landing videos taken during approaches into technically challenging airports.
Yesterday, Phillip Bump posted a link on Twitter to a detailed rant, written by a pilot, about why pilots don't like to land at (or take off from) Washington DC's Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. That post is pretty interesting, especially if you've ever wondered—as I had, while waiting on the tarmac at National last fall—how large jets manage land and take off from that airport while simultaneously avoiding all the no-fly zones that are very, very close by. (Hint: It is difficult, and occasionally terrifying.) But the money shot is at the end, where you can watch a video that will show you the pilot's eye view of a National Airport landing approach.
Turns out, there is a whole, beautiful genre of YouTube videos devoted to this kind of thing. The video above is one of my favorites, showing the approach in to Hong Kong's old Kai Tak airport. Closed in 1998, Kai Tak had one of the most challenging landing approaches in the world. It involved flying at heights of less than 1000 feet over the top of crowded neighborhoods and close to nearby skyscrapers, then executing a sharp right-hand turn, while continuing to lose elevation. Oh, and, the turn had to be done without the help of the Instrument Landing System. Instead, pilots made the turn based on a checkerboard marker painted on the side of a hill. And the runway ended in water. And the wind was often less than favorable to this kind of maneuvering. Fun!
The video above is a bit long, but if you fast forward to about 3:00 minutes in, you'll see the best parts. By that point, you can see the checkerboard marker off to the left and get a feel for just how low these planes had to be. Although, frankly, I'm having a hard time deciding which is freakier: What these landing looked like from the sky, or what they looked like from the ground.