June 1, 2011
This video of Endeavour‘s picture-perfect landing at 2:35 a.m. today offers a little surprise, even for some veteran shuttle watchers. Can you guess what we’re referring to?
If you guessed the flickering light at the base of the vertical tail, you’re spot on. And if you stuck with the video to the 1:20 mark, the infrared footage that begins there shows what appears to be a large, pulsing flame that would alarm any unsuspecting layman, shuttle engineer or astronaut.
Turns out it’s not a new phenomenon, and was initially observed on STS-51, the first night landing at the Kennedy Space Center, back in 1993. NASA also addressed it here after it occurred on STS-106, pointing out that the auxiliary power units at the back of the orbiter vent hydrogen, helium, and ammonia from three vents at the base of the tail.
We’ve contacted NASA for further info on why it ignites on some night landings and not most others. Check back here for further details.
May 27, 2011
With the tragedy in Joplin, Missouri this week, tornadoes have been front and center in the news. At the time of this post, the death toll in and around Joplin, according to the Associated Press, has risen to 132 while the list of people still missing hovers at 156. At the number seven slot, 2011 is rapidly climbing the list of the deadliest tornado years in U.S. history.
I got a firsthand sense of the convulsive weather that Missourians and others in the Midwest and South have been suffering this year when I flew to St. Louis last Sunday. Our American Airlines flight out of Washington Reagan National Airport arrived as scheduled at St. Louis Lambert International Airport at 7:40p.m. local time. The trip was smooth, sunny and uneventful until we began our descent. Passing through a layer of cloud at maybe 20,000 feet, the setting sun vanished, and it seemed we had waded into a dark lagoon. As we curved around on final approach, I got a view to the west where a wall of coal-colored cloud spanned the horizon, curved like an ocean wave about to break. Had we been 10 or 15 minutes later, I’m sure we’d have diverted.
I’d find out soon enough that this storm had unleashed an F5 tornado a couple hours earlier that leveled Joplin on the west side of the state.
Reaching my car just in time, I sat and watched a flashing sky begin spitting hail and spewing rain. The storm was all tornadoed out. But moments earlier, on the way to the rental lot in a van, I couldn’t help noticing the amount of plywood in the windows all around the airport, which apparently lost half of its glass to an F4 (technically EF4, for Enhanced Fujita scale) twister exactly a month earlier, April 22, Good Friday.
My driver described how he had been working on April 22 when rain drops the size of golf balls began to travel sideways in a 160 mile-an-hour gale. He said he started to really worry when he looked up amid the shrieking wind, and through his windshield saw a dumpster go past at what he estimated to be 90 miles an hour. He never saw it land. Somehow his bus stayed on the ground, but others, like the one at right, had closer calls.
With no fatalities, the St. Louis tornado didn’t get as much national news as the Joplin twister a month later. The details were news to me, though. Have a look at the following videos from April 22 for a sense of how a twister might get your adrenalin going at the airport.
A security cam:
And now for some sound, and a little more mayhem:
This guy talks about watching a commercial jet sliding across the concrete:
Lights out and lots of debris:
Boredom gets less boring in a hurry:
May 20, 2011
The “glass cockpit,” named for the new generation of flat panel, liquid crystal displays (LCDs), is commonplace now in all types of aircraft from the Cessna to the space shuttle. LCD technology began to appear in earnest in the 1990s. Today, with the continued price plunge of electronic displays, the perforated instrument panel, like that seen in the old 747s, has become a museum relic.
Most cockpit LCDs aren’t much bigger than about six by six inches. The Airbus A380 has larger ones—eight of them— each measuring about six by nine inches.
And we’ve been impressed with the U.S. Navy’s EA-18G Growler’s backseat display, used by the crew’s electronic warfare officer. Measuring eight by 10 inches, the Growler’s interactive touch screen can show just one scene, such as a moving map of the terrain beneath the jet, or multiple scenes at once.
Next up: The Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The next-generation passenger jet will amp up the display size with five screens, each measuring nine inches high by 12 wide.
Still not big enough.
Recently, at the Navy League expo in Washington, D.C., Boeing offered a mockup of an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet of the future. The pilot, and his weapons systems officer in the F model, would each use a single, 11-x-19-inch flat panel touch-activated display that replaces nearly every switch and gauge. For now Boeing is offering the new display to potential foreign customers, such as Canada. The U.S. Navy hasn’t committed to it, as they’d rather keep things standardized; having already taken delivery of some 1,500 older Hornets and about 500 Super Hornets, none with the science fiction-y single screen, they’d rather have pilots recognize the cockpit each time they strap in.
But for future airplanes, who better to be designing this stuff than college students:
May 16, 2011
She thought she’d like to fly again. And so she flew. Helene Dax, 87, a former pilot, had filled out a survey form at the Brookdale Senior Living center where she lives in Denver. Brookdale, which caters to people challenged with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and Jeremy Bloom’s Wish of a Lifetime foundation invited Dax and others to submit a wish for an experience they’d like to have fulfilled. The experience had to relate to one or more of six dimensions in the company’s Optimum Life concept: emotional, social, physical, intellectual, spiritual, and purposeful.
An idea came easily to Dax, who as a teenager during World War II had worked air traffic control in Chicago. She earned her pilot’s license at 26, and says the only part that scared her about flying was cranking the propeller to start the engine. Flying is in her blood as much today as it was then.
Brookdale and Bloom’s foundation thought her wish was especially compelling due to the fact that she was a pioneer for women in aviation, and was best friends with Emily Warner, the first woman airline pilot at Frontier Airlines. Warner was invited along for the ride.
On Tuesday, May 10, a pilot from McAir Aviation took the two women up in a Cessna 172 out of Broomfield, Colorado. Dax rode in the front seat next to the pilot, who handed over the controls to her for a few minutes.
“It was very pleasant, a beautiful day, and so much fun riding in the plane,” says Dax. “Just like it was before. I loved every minute, and am grateful for another experience flying. Thank you everyone.”
The weather nonetheless provided a touch of adventure: winds picked up during the flight, which required a slightly tricky landing in some cross winds.
May 10, 2011
It was about the hardest landing you can have and survive. Forty-four years ago today, NASA test pilot Bruce Peterson unwittingly created the intro for 1970s television show “The Six Million Dollar Man” when he hit the lakebed in an M2-F2 lifting body aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base doing 250 miles an hour without his gear fully extended. The craft bounced, skidded and tumbled in a cloud of dust, and miraculously held together. The crash would be more sickening to watch only if he had been carrying fuel—luckily it was the aircraft’s last unpowered glide before a planned move to powered flights. Peterson was seriously injured, but recovered over the course of the next year and flew again. He died of natural causes in 2006 at age 72. The M2-F2, rebuilt as the M2-F3 with an additional vertical stabilizer, lives on at the Smithsonian.
Here are some more clips of the M2-F2.
The lifting body research at NASA was dangerous stuff, but it yielded critical data that was later used in the design of the space shuttle and the Air Force’s newest toy, the X-37 unmanned spaceplane.
But no one back then would have guessed that a commercial company early in the 21st century would use one of NASA’s precarious lifting bodies to create a private space plane. SpaceDev, the space systems unit of Sierra Nevada Corporation, is doing just that. Sierra Nevada is one of four companies that just a few weeks ago got tens of millions of dollars each from NASA in a second round of funding via the space agency’s Commercial Crew Development program (CCDev). The companies will use this money to move ahead with plans for a viable, commercial alternative to put humans and cargo into low Earth orbit after the shuttle retires this summer.
The Dream Chaser will launch atop an Atlas V rocket and carry as many as seven people to and from orbit. It will be able to dock with the International Space Station and other orbiting vessels, and return in a powerless glide to to any number of runways as the space shuttle did, only more of them, such as Denver International Airport. The company, which announced the spacecraft in 2005, hopes to begin flight tests in 2013 and move on to operational flights as early as 2014.
Thanks to Bruce Peterson, they’ll probably get the landing gear down on time, every time.
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