September 16, 2013
“Is it the pilot or the plane?” That’s the question that Reno air race announcers repeatedly proclaimed would be decided by yesterday’s 50th national championship Unlimited race. If that was the question, the answer was… the pilot.
After four previous wins in Tiger Destefani’s modified Mustang Strega, champion Steve Hinton climbed into the cockpit of a former rival—Voodoo—and handily beat Strega, denying veteran racer Matt Jackson his chance at Unlimited Gold. Having ended up in the outside position because of boundary penalties in previous races, Jackson made a mighty effort, coming from last position to second, but just could not close the eight-second gap that Hinton had opened between Voodoo and number two.
But there’s more to winning Reno than the pilot and the plane. The Voodoo crew was headed by Bill Kerchenfaut, the winningest crew chief in history.
Besides the duke-out between Hinton and Jackson, there was other drama during the week, as former shuttle commander Hoot Gibson was eliminated from Sunday’s race. On Saturday, the composite scoop atop the engine cowling of his Hawker Sea Fury 232 disintegrated, and pieces struck the windshield and other parts on the airplane, with some of the pieces being ingested by the engine. Gibson landed safely, but that was it for 232. Jackson also experienced a mayday in a qualifying race, when, at approximately 500 mph, the Strega’s canopy separated, grazing his helmet. Again, the pilot landed safely.
The 2013 National Championship Air Races had a smaller field in the Unlimited Class—13 racers, as opposed to 21 in previous years—but this year’s event was injury-free.
July 1, 2013
Halfway through the new movie World War Z, the captain of a transport aircraft preparing to land at Cardiff, Wales, broadcasts “pan, pan, pan” over the radio while Brad Pitt battles zombies in the fuselage. What the…?
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the proper call is “pan pan, pan pan, pan pan.” As opposed to “Mayday,” which the crew transmits when an aircraft is in hair-raising danger, pan-pan (from the French panne, for breakdown) means “We’re not exactly crashing yet, but things are not going well.” In the movie, smoke was streaming from one engine and Pitt was about to trigger a hand grenade so the marauding zombies would get sucked out of the fuselage—so, yeah, not going well at all.
Pan-pan is one of those dorky phrases you learn in ground school, like “wilco” (short for “will comply),” that you’d sooner die than utter over the radio for your fellow pilots to hear. However, the crews of Swissair Flight 111, Qantas Flights QF-74 and QF-72, and Air Berlin Flight 9721 wisely radioed the distress call when push came to shove.
April 23, 2013
German photographer Dietmar Eckell is drawn to abandoned objects: neglected railroad tracks, stranded ships, detritus from past Olympic Games. His latest project, titled Happy End, documents aircraft wreckage—but only from accidents where everyone on board survived.
The photograph above, the last image in the series, shows a B-24 that crashed in Papua New Guinea during World War II. “I wanted a warbird in the jungle with a miracle story,” Eckell wrote in an email, “and always loved the stories of the Pacific wrecks, so I started looking in Papua New Guinea.” According to his information, all nine crew members on board survived the crash.
The Douglas C-47 above was the first aircraft Eckell documented during the two-year project. “I’ve been there [Yukon Territory, Canada] twice already, and next time I want to go back in February, as the crash happened in February 1950. The pilot walked all the way to the Alaskan Highway to get help.”
Eckell asks local pilots to help pinpoint exact locations and provide story details, and he searches for information in local archives. “I [was originally] inspired by paintings of shipwrecks in the romantic period,” he writes. “But soon I got hooked on these planes and stories, and it was like a pilgrimage to ‘wonders’ around the world.”
April 11, 2013
You’re going to need a clock. That’s what the National Air and Space Museum wants to get across to visitors with its new permanent exhibit, Time and Navigation, opening tomorrow.
“If you want to know where you are, or if you want to know where you’re going, you need a reliable clock,” said Carlene Stephens, a curator at the National Museum of American History, which houses the Smithsonian’s collection of clocks and contributed to the exhibit. Appropriately, visitors enter the exhibit by walking under a beautiful blue and gold clock, in the “spirit of the early and truly magnificent European clocks,” says exhibit designer Heidi Eitel. She wanted to include the automaton clock that comes to life every quarter hour to tell “the story of when people began sharing time.”
The exhibit takes you through three eras, starting with Navigating at Sea, when sailors first used sextants and star charts to find their way across vast oceans. Though ships have had navigators since the 1600s, it wasn’t until the early 1800s that they had marine chronometers that kept reliable time at sea and allowed navigation with any precision. Galileo’s pendulum clock and an interactive 19th-century ship’s sextant that lets visitors navigate by the stars are highlights.
Next, the exhibit takes flight. Even aviation heros like Charles Lindbergh got lost before Navy Lieutenant Commander P.V.H. Weems developed air navigation techniques. Overhead, visitors can see the Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae, which Wiley Post and famed navigator Harold Gatty flew around the world in 1931 in just eight days — a feat that could not have been accomplished without precise location-determining skills.
In the third and final era, navigation gets three-dimensional as it moves into space. Throughout this section of the exhibit are star charts where Earth becomes just another potential destination on the map. Our education on space navigation starts with the story of NASA’s nine Ranger spacecraft, notorious for their failures to reach the moon, including two that completely missed the mark. But astronauts eventually made it to the surface, and visitors can see the Apollo sextant and space shuttle star tracker here. “When we go back into deep space,” said curator Andrew Johnston, “it’ll be very interesting to see how far we’ve come with navigation.” With the technology available today, the exhibit explains, spacecraft missions in 2012 were 100,000 times more accurate than they were in the 1960s.
Finally, the exhibit shows us how we navigate today. Atomic clocks (one is on view in case you need to set your watch) that keep time to three billionths of a second, GPS satellites that can be accessed from anywhere in the world, and smartphones that crunch all sorts of data have replaced chronometers and sextants and bulky books of charts. In fact, navigation today doesn’t even need people: Stanford’s driverless-car Stanley is also on display. It won DARPA’s 2005 Grand Challenge by navigating an off-road 132-mile race. But proving its necessity in our everyday modern lives, Time and Navigation ends with stories from today — a farmer, a fireman and a student explain how their livelihoods are affected by the technology developed since the first sailor located the North Star.
April 1, 2013
Ah, the romance of the airship. With its advent, passengers could finally be transported over great distances in comfort—even luxury. “On a plane you fly, but on the Graf Zeppelin you voyage,” remarked one pampered passenger. (For the Graf Zeppelin‘s first transatlantic flight, besotted crowds of 50,000 or more awaited its arrival at the landing field at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1928, even though it was delayed a day due to bad weather. Millions more watched as the airship slowly made its way up the East Coast, floating over Washington, D.C., past Baltimore and above New York City.) The airship experience, however, didn’t come cheap. In 1928, a round trip transatlantic ticket went for $3,000, worth about $40,000 in today’s dollars.
But what about the photograph shown here? The New York Times reports that in 1929, “Alfred E. Smith, the leader of a group of investors erecting the Empire State Building,” announced that the height of the building would be increased by 200 feet so that a mooring mast for dirigibles could be installed. Smith noted that passengers would exit the airship down a gangplank, and a mere seven minutes later could be on the street, ready to experience everything Manhattan had to offer.
Dr. Hugo Eckener, the commander of the Graf Zeppelin, reports the New York Times, dismissed the project as impractical, noting that dirigible landings required dozens of ground crew, not to mention plenty of rope. “[T]he notion that passengers would be able to descend an airport-style ramp from a moving airship to the tip of the tallest building in the world, even in excellent conditions, beggars belief,” notes the Times.
In 1930, International News Photos distributed this manipulated photograph. At the time, no airship had docked at the Empire State Building. That didn’t happen until September 1931, when a privately-owned dirigible docked for a mere three minutes, in a 40-mile-per-hour wind. “Traffic was tied up in the streets below for more than a half hour as the pilot, Lieutenant William McCraken jockeyed for position in the half gale about the tower 1,200 feet above the ground,” the Times reported in 1931.
This image—and 200 others—are on display at the National Gallery of Art in the exhibition “Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop.” The exhibition runs through May 5, 2013.
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