October 19, 2012
For a pilot delivering airmail in the early 1920s, navigation “technology” consisted of leaning out of the cockpit and using the landscape to find the way. “Follow the tracks of the Long Island Railroad past Belmont Park race track,” read the 1921 U.S. Air Mail Service Pilots’ Directions from Long Island to Cleveland. “Cross New York over the lower end of Central Park.” Even after radio navigation aids were introduced in the late 1920s, pilots still used landmarks to complete their trips.
The arrow with the figure “9″ (above), according to National Air and Space Museum records, indicates the mileage and direction to the nearest airport, in this case, Grand Central. The official Department of Commerce sprocket-shaped marker (with a center star) signified that approved accommodations and services could be had at the airport indicated by the arrow.
In the photograph above, taken in Massachusetts, the “C” in the circle with arrow and numeral “3″ gives the direction and distance to the nearest airfield.
“By 1941, some 13,000 marks had been painted on barns, hangars, skyscrapers, oil tanks, and train stations,” Roger Mola wrote for us in “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” “Though federal aviation agencies regulated every aspect of letter size (10 to 30 feet tall) to paint (Chrome Yellow Number 4 on a black background) to distance between markers (one every 15 miles was the goal), they never lifted a brush,” writes Mola. “Labor came from the Works Progress Administration, the Civil Air Patrol, the Civilian Conservation Corps, civic volunteers, scouting organizations, and the Ninety-Nines organization of women pilots.”
Landscape markers were so common that their histories were sometimes conflated with other scenic features, such as giant hillside letters. As Guy Rocha, former Nevada State Archivist, wrote in 2004, “The folklore is that the hillside letters found principally throughout the American west were created to help early 20th-century airplane pilots navigate and identify communities, presumably when the aviators could see the letters during daylight hours, with good weather, and no snow cover. The truth is the hillside letters are first and foremost symbols of school and community pride dating back to 1905. Early-day pilots found the hillside letters useful at times; however, any aeronautical value associated with the school and community letters came after the fact.”
Berkeley’s 70-foot-high “Big C,” notes James J. Parsons in Landscape, “[W]as built by the freshman and sophomore classes over two rainy days in the spring of 1905 and finished in time for official recognition at the annual Charter Day celebration. The traditional brawl between the two classes had degenerated into something close to guerrilla warfare, a kind of primal savagery known as ‘the rush’ that was likened by one contemporary to Anglo-Saxon raids on the British coast…. In a well-publicized truce, the classes…agreed to devote their energies to constructing a masonry C on the steep, grassy slope behind the campus.”
October 5, 2012
The odds of you being killed in an airplane crash, dear reader, are a million to one. But that didn’t stop the Discovery Channel from loading a 727 with a dazzling array of sensors and crashing it into the Mexican desert, all in the name of science. The results of the experiment will be aired this Sunday, October 7, as the season premiere of “Curiosity.”
Among other things, the filmmakers wanted to determine if there was anything a passenger could do to improve his or her odds of surviving. Where should you sit? Does bracing help, or is that an old wives’ tale? Crash-test dummies (which cost $150,000 each and provide 32 different types of data) were placed throughout the aircraft. Some were set in the brace position, while others were seated upright. “Low-tech dummies” were also used, either buckled into their seats, or seated without restraints.
An experiment on this scale, notes the film, has been tried only once before. In 1984, NASA spent millions crashing a Boeing 720 into Rogers Dry Lake in the California desert. But the aircraft lost control on the final approach and burst into flames after crashing—not good for collecting data. (The experiment was part of a joint research project between NASA and the FAA to test the effectiveness of a fire-suppressing fuel additive.)
Watch a clip from the show, below:
September 14, 2012
After recovering from wounds he received as an ambulance corps volunteer during World War I, Ernest Hemingway married Hadley Richardson in 1921. The following year the couple moved to Paris, where Ernest was the foreign correspondent for the Toronto Daily Star. The newspaper ran the following piece on September 9, 1922. (Reprinted in Into the Blue: American Writing on Aviation and Spaceflight, edited by Joseph J. Corn, 2011).
Strasburg, France, Aug. 23. — We were sitting in the cheapest of all the cheap restaurants that cheapen that very cheap and noisy street, the Rue des Petits Champs in Paris.
We were Mrs. Hemingway, William E. Nash, Mr. Nash’s little brother, and myself. Mr. Nash announced, somewhere between the lobster and the fried sole, that he was going to Munich the next day and was planning to fly from Paris to Strasburg. Mrs. Hemingway pondered this until the appearance of the rognons sautés aux champignons, when she asked, “Why don’t we ever fly anywhere? Why is everybody else always flying and we always staying home?”
That being one of those questions that cannot be answered by words, I went with Mr. Nash to the office of the Franco-Rumanian Aero Company and bought two tickets, half price for journalists, for 120 francs, good for one flight from Paris to Strasburg. The trip is ten hours and a half by best express train, and takes two hours and a half by plane.
My natural gloom at the prospect of flying, having flown once, was deepened when I learned that we flew over the Vosges mountains and would have to be at the offices of the company, just off the Avenue de l’Opera, at five o’clock in the morning….
The Nashes were waiting at the office for us…. The four of us rode out to Le Bourget, the ugliest ride in Paris, in a big limousine and had some more coffee in a shed there outside the flying field. A Frenchman in an oily jumper took our tickets, tore them in two and told us we were going in two different planes. Out of the window of the shed we could see them standing, small, silver-painted, taut and shining in the early morning sun in front of the airdrome. We were the only passengers.
Our suitcase was stowed aboard under a seat beside the pilot’s place. We climbed up a couple of steps into a stuffy little cabin and the mechanic handed us some cotton for our ears and locked the door. The pilot climbed into his seat back of the enclosed cock-pit where we sat, a mechanic pulled down on the propeller and the engine began to roar. I looked around at the pilot. He was a short little man, his cap backwards on his head, wearing an oil stained sheep-skin coat and big gloves. Then the plane began to move along the ground, bumping like a motorcycle, and then slowly rose into the air.
We headed almost straight east of Paris, rising in the air as though we were sitting inside a boat that was being lifted slowly by some giant, and the ground began to flatten out beneath us. It looked cut into brown squares, yellow squares, green squares and big flat blotches of green where there was a forest. I began to understand cubist painting.
Sometimes we came down quite low and could see bicyclists on the road looking like pennies rolling along a narrow, white strip…. We went over great forests that looked as soft as velvet, passed over Bar le Duc and Nancy, gray red-roofed towns, over St. Mihiel and the front and in an open field I could see the old trenches zig-zagging through a field pocked with shell holes. I shouted to Mrs. Hemingway to look but she didn’t hear me. Her chin was sunk forward into the collar of her new fur coat that she had wanted to christen with a plane trip. She was sound asleep.
You can read more about Hemingway’s aviation adventures in “Who Was Fatty Pearson?” in our October/November issue (on newsstands and posted to this site next week).
July 24, 2012
Seven years ago, when London was chosen to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, officials knew it would stress the city’s busy airspace. In March, the United Kingdom’s National Air Traffic Service (NATS) told Parliament that airspace congestion at London’s Heathrow airport was already at 98 percent capacity, so that by mid-July, any disruption to the overburdened system of NATS-controlled airspace—from increased traffic, weather delays, or terrorist attacks—would require even more help. To help offset the volume, the Royal Air Force established an Olympics airspace management “cell” named Atlas Control within the largest NATS control center at Swanwick, to handle flights in the temporary restricted zones.
The temporary Atlas control center is staffed with more than 100 airmen from the Royal Air Force. Half will work as air traffic controllers; the rest will handle flight plans. All are veterans of Air Traffic Services Outside Controlled Airspace (ATSOCAS), a service that does everything from giving pilots weather updates to rerouting aircraft.
During the first weekend of airspace security restrictions, which began July 14, a large number of flight plans were filed with minor errors that stumped the computerized system. To help process paperwork, another 10 staff were assigned to the control center.
The Olympics are expected to bring 700 more commercial airliners carrying 500,000 athletes and fans; an extra 3,000 business aviation flights; and at least 150 heads of State in VIP aircraft. Airlines lobbied NATS for priority to land or cross the airspace, but NATS is required to treat all users equally.
Earlier estimates of air traffic were based on patterns seen during the Beijing Olympics, Paul Beauchamp of the NATs press office told us July 20. But London’s flight restrictions are not as severe as they were in China, where private airplanes were essentially prohibited. “No one is saying that general aviation pilots are excluded,” said Beauchamp, “just that they need to tell Atlas Control who they are, and where they are going. It’s not about closing down airspace, but creating a known environment.” Since flight plans can be filed as little as two hours before takeoff, patterns are tough to predict. “The closer we get to the Opening Ceremony on July 27, the more plans we’ll get,” said Beauchamp. “Then [another] surge just before the Men’s 100-meter final. Then again for the Closing Ceremony.”
Any aircraft coming closer than three nautical miles to a restricted zone, and more critically the prohibited zone at the center of the Games, needs an approved flight plan, and is required to establish two-way radio contact before leaving the ground. Pilots don’t need a flight plan, and don’t have to speak to Atlas or even carry a transponder to reveal their location if they remain more than three nautical miles away.
Some 1,500 helicopter flights will carry media and broadcast crews, security teams, and Olympic staff to the city center each day. Flying at low level, each helicopter needs to dodge balloons carrying television and security cameras that are linked to the ground by tethers stretching from 142 feet to 381 feet.
After the Olympics end, the control center will manage the somewhat eased restrictions for the Paralympic Games, through the closing of the Olympic Village on September 12. Delegations from Brazil (site of the 2014 World Cup) and Russia (which will host the 2014 Winter Olympics) have visited Atlas to help prepare for their events.
Some air traffic planners worry less about security threats than a natural disruption, whether from England’s notorious rain and fog, or an event as unlikely as a volcano. Partly at the urging of British authorities, Airbus accelerated its tests of an Airborne Volcanic Object Infrared Detector (AVOID) to alert Atlas to any such geologic disruption.
With just days to go until the July 27 opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, travelers are streaming into London’s airports. The Guardian reported on July 16 that Heathrow Airport was expecting 236,900 passengers that day, some 47,000 above normal (of these, only 335 were Olympic athletes).
Arriving visitors may have already met “Holly” or “Graham,” virtual assistants installed in January 2011 to help passengers better understand airport procedures, including security measures. (Watch the company video at the bottom of the page.)
“We currently have Tensator Virtual Assistants installed within a number of UK airports, including London Luton, Bristol, Edinburgh, [and] Birmingham,” says Louise Francis of Tensator. (The company has also placed virtual assistants in the United States, at Boston Logan and Dulles International.)
The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey is testing five of Arius Media’s AVAs, or Airport Virtual Assistants (see below), which have been placed in Newark Liberty International Airport, LaGuardia, and JFK International Airport. The airports serve 106 million passengers annually. The hologram will give directions to taxi stands and bus stops, as well as outline airport security measures.
In a press release, the Port Authority noted that the avatars are part of an improvement plan directly resulting from a survey of more than 10,000 air passengers.
DigitalTrends reported that the Port Authority is paying $180,000 for a six-month rental. (The units sell for $250,000 each.)
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