June 22, 2012
A team of student engineers from the University of Maryland are attempting to keep their pedal-powered helicopter, Gamera II, off the ground for at least 60 seconds — which would set a new world record.
Here’s video of a (40-second) flight earlier this week.
June 18, 2012
Captain Charlotte Madison (a pseudonym) was the first female Apache pilot in the British Army Air Corps. She completed two tours in Afghanistan, which she details in her 2010 book Dressed to Kill. In the excerpt below, Madison and her copilot, stationed in Kandahar, await clearance to perform an air test.
As we sit waiting for clearance on to the runway, ATC [Air Traffic Control] is busy and I can’t get a word in edgeways. I drum my fingers on the cockpit dashboard and Darwin whistles tunelessly. Seconds tick by, and the radios buzz with voices.
“Mayday Mayday Mayday, this is Death 23 Death 23 Death 23.”
An American man’s voice booms over the radio, and the first three words make everyone listening freeze.
Mayday is a call only made when the aircraft or the crew is in immediate peril, and everything stops to ensure the safety of the stricken crew. To have a Mayday emergency in a hostile environment is a crew’s worst nightmare.
“Shit,” we say together, reaching in tandem for our radio volume dials so that we can hear every word. I can practically feel every aircraft within a ten-mile radius listening in.
“Death 23, this is Kandahar Air Traffic, your Mayday call is acknowledged. Send your position and type of emergency,” the calm voice of the girl in ATC replies immediately.
Darwin and I hold our breath for the details. My heart beats against my harness straps, imagining if I was one of the crew inside Death.
“Roger, stand by.” Death’s voice is clear and slow—he doesn’t sound as stressed as I’d be.
“He sounds chilled out, doesn’t he?” Darwin notices.
“Well, it’s all recorded, isn’t it? You don’t want to sound like a Wiener when they listen to the tape at the Board of Inquiry, do you?” I stick up for Death. We used to sit around on bad-weather days on the pilots course bragging about the radio call we’d make if we were ever speeding towards the ground in a flameball. There was a famous tale of a fast-jet pilot who’d fatally crashed into a cliff, and just before impact he radioed his base with: “Better cancel the hot lunches.” It was legend with all baby-pilots.
“What kind of aircraft is Death anyway?” I ask Darwin.
“Beats me.” He’s distracted, waiting for details.
“Kandahar traffic, this is Death 23. We have suffered an engine failure after take-off. We are currently 500 yards east of the 27 threshold. We are on the ground, repeat: on the ground.”
“Roger,” ATC responds. “Can you confirm that you are still inside the wire?” If the aircraft is inside the safety of the barbed-wire fence around the Kandahar base, then it’s not as bad as it sounds, I think. If not, it’s the worst news imaginable.
“Death is outside the wire,” the voice drawls back.
“Why the hell is he so relaxed about it then?” Darwin says loudly. “Shall we?”
“I know,” I say, as the idea comes simultaneously to me. “I’ll offer to go into overwatch.”
We are armed and scary-looking; we can hover over the scene of the accident as a deterrent until some ground troops can recover the wreck and the crew. It works overhead Kajaki, so there’s no reason we can’t prevent an enemy attack here too.
“Kandahar, this is Ugly Five Four,” I transmit.
“Stand by,” ATC cuts in.
She’s not happy with my interruption. She radios Death and urgently asks for his coordinates; he tells her to wait. He’s clearly in no rush, whereas she is now starting to sound worried.
“Kandahar, Ugly Five Four can lift immediately and cover the accident. We are armed.” I transmit this in one long sentence so she can’t cut me out.
“Roger,” she responds, then swiftly relays our offer to Death.
There is a pause, and then, unbelievably, he declines.
“That won’t be necessary,” he calmly tells ATC.
For some minutes, we repeat this exchange with increasing levels of urgency. Death is outside the wire, unprotected. At least the crew seem to be fine. I keep telling ATC that we can be overhead in less than a minute; she keeps suggesting it to Death, Death keeps refusing. My mouth is dry and my heart is beating so hard it’s as if something is kicking me from inside. Sweat starts to form in beads on my back and shoulders but I feel strangely cold.
ATC is getting into the swing of things now and asks Death whether they have any injuries on board.
“Negative. No pilots or crew onboard,” Death replies.
“Ha! No wonder he crashed, with no pilot,” shouts Darwin.
I’m confused. What the…?
ATC is confused too.
“Confirm NO crew?” she repeats.
“Affirm, ma’am. Death is an unmanned aerial vehicle. I’m talking to you from my office.”
I can’t believe I wasted heartbeats on him. I look at Darwin in the mirror. He looks back, shaking his head. Nothing needs to be said, and I can hear him chuckling into his microphone.
Thanks to reader Mark Mallari for directing us to this book.
May 14, 2012
Admit it: You thought text messaging began with the advent of mobile phones. Not so, claims maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham in his new book, Titanic Tragedy: A New Look at the Lost Liner. Maxtone-Graham writes:
Years before cell phones, Marconi men [shipboard telegraphers] were the first texters: OM or OB (old man or old boy) was a commonly transmitted preliminary…. They employed a host of other time-saving shortcuts. STBI meant standby, GE and GN, respectively, “good evening” and “good night.” Some abbreviations were culled from other languages: C signaled “yes.” DE, doubtless pinched from the French, meant “from.” N was “no,” “you” became U, and R was “are.” The word “message” was shortened to MSG, “traffic” to TFC. “Best regards” was conveyed enigmatically by the number 73, akin to later CB enthusiasts’ 10-4. Later, when female operators were recruited, “love and kisses” was signified by 88. Disparagements had their own coded pejorative: LID branded an inept telegrapher as a “poor operator,” QRL meant “keep quiet, I’m busy,” and GTH a pithier “go to hell.” The abrupt torrent GTHOMQRL said it all: “Go to hell, old man, I’m busy.” A gentler sign-off might be TUOMGN: “Thank you, old man, good night.”
And what has this got to do with aviation? Modern military pilots text one another, even in the middle of battle. As Ed Macy explains in Apache, crews use a secure text messaging system consisting of four lines of text and 176 character spaces. Macy and his fellow Apache pilots would often text one another in order to minimize the chatter on the Apache helicopter network, giving updates, for instance, on their remaining weaponry. A pilot might send the message: 40*30MM, 0*HEISAP, 8*FLECH, 0*HELLF. (Translation: The Apache was down to 40 30-millimeter cannon rounds, was out of High Explosive Incendiary Semi-Armour Piercing rockets, had 8 remaining Flechette rockets, and no more Hellfire laser-guided missiles.)
What’s next? NakedSecurity reported in February that the U.S. military is in line to get Smartphones cleared for secret dispatches. “The United States,” reports Lisa Vaas, “which currently forbids government workers or soldiers to use smartphones to send classified messages, is preparing a modified version of Google’s Android operating system that will meet its security certifications…. While pinpointing fellow infantrymen would be a boon, the military has to ensure that soldiers aren’t simultaneously broadcasting their own GPS coordinates to enemy combatants. Weather apps, for example, automatically transmit a phone’s GPS coordinates in order to deliver a local forecast.”
March 9, 2012
AND the company will pay you for the privilege, with a year’s worth of shop space, resources, mentorship and development aid in the Sikorsky Innovation Center in Stamford, Connecticut. All you have to do is submit a winning proposal, by March 30, on an innovation related to vertical-flight technology. Says Marianne Heffernan, Sikorsky Aircraft communications manager, proposals could easily come from people “who don’t even realize they have a technology…relevant to the rotorcraft arena.”
Details are here.
And fine-print stuff is here.
February 3, 2012
Ever wonder what it takes to become an Apache helicopter pilot? Former British Army Air Corps pilot Ed Macy gives this description in his 2009 book Apache: Inside the Cockpit of the World’s Most Deadly Fighting Machine.
As the most technically advanced helicopter in the world, the Apache AH Mk1 was also the hardest to fly…. To train each Apache pilot from scratch cost £3 million (each custom-made helmet alone had a price tag of £22,915). It took six months just to learn how to fly the machine, another six to know how to fight in it, and a final six to be passed combat ready. And that was if you were already a fully qualified, combat-trained army helicopter pilot. If you weren’t, you’d have to add four months for ground school and learning to fly fixed wing at RAF Barkston Heath, six months learning to fly helicopters at RAF Shawbury, half a year at the School of Army Aviation learning to fly tactically, and a final sixteen-week course in Survival, Evasion and Resistance to Interrogation, courtesy of the Intelligence Corps’ most vigorous training staff. Three years in total….
Flying an Apache almost always meant both hands and feet doing four different things at once. Even our eyes had to learn how to work independently of each other. A monocle sat permanently over our right iris. A dozen different instrument readings from around the cockpit were projected into it. At the flick of a button, a range of other images could also be superimposed underneath the green glow of the instrument symbology, replicating the TADS’ [target acquisition and designation sights] or PNVS’ [pilots night vision sight] camera images and the Longbow Radars’ targets.
The monocle left the pilot’s left eye free to look outside the cockpit, saving him the few seconds that it took to look down at the instruments and then up again…. New pilots suffered terrible headaches as the left and right eye competed for dominance. They started within minutes, long before take-off…. As the eyes adjusted over the following weeks and months the headaches took longer to set in. It was a year before mine disappeared altogether…. I once filmed my face during a sortie with a video camera as an experiment. My eyes whirled independently of each other throughout, like a man possessed.
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