Wednesday, November 11, 2020


The Daring Dream of Personal Flight

Oringal test by Nancy Shute; Executive summary by darmansjah

ON THE BRINK Australian Jim Mitchell leaps off Ottawa Peak on Canada’s Baffin Island while wearing a wing suit in April 2010. He died weeks later when a jump from a nearby mountain went tragically awry.

Perched on the edge of a cold, windswept dune in North Carolina, I was about to fulfill a dream I shared with Leonardo da Vinci: To fly. The Renaissance genius spent years deciphering the flight of birds an devising personal flying machines. On his deathbed in 1519, Leonardo said one of his regrets was that he had never flown. Five hundred years of innovation since then had produced the hang glider I held above my head, simple and safe enough to be offered as a tourist entertainment. But despite those centuries of adventure and experimentation, personal flight-the ability to bound from Earth like a skylark, swoop like a falcon, and dart as blithely as a hummingbird-remains elusive.

Our human longing to mimic birds has often proved painful. Greek mythology mourns the melted dreams of Icarus. Arab poetry relates a crushing crash by ninth-century inventor Abbas ibn Firnas. Medieval British monk Eilmer became lame after leaping from an abbey on homemade wings. But as technology takes off, the dream of personal flight seems closer than ever.

1480’S The “aerial screw” one of several flying devices sketched by Leonardo da Vinci, hints at the whirling motion of the modern helicopter.

1783 A taffeta hot-air balloon carries two men over Paris. Its inventors were said to be inspired by paper-or underwear-floating in a fire’s updraft.

1853 Sir George Cayley, 79m sees his “governable parachute” briefly glide through what the calls “an uninterrupted navigable ocean that comes to…every man’s door”-the sky.

1891-1896 To prove hang gliders are more than a passing fancy. German engineer Otto Lilienthal flies his own versions some 2,000 times before a fatal fall.

1900-1911 The Wright brothers pioneer the airplane and develop better gliders. Orville’s 1911 model soars nearly ten minutes, the longest unpowered flight yet.

That’s not for lack of trying. Many lives have been lost and fortunes squandered pursuing the dream of flight, and even today scientists, inventors, and adventures persist in the quest.

Leonardo drew hundreds of images of birds on the wing, trying to decode their secrets, and drafted meticulous plans for flying machines not unlike today’s gliders and helicopters. But he never figured out the physics of flight. It took more than 300 years and many more failed experiments until Sir George Cayley, a British engineer, determined that flight required lift, propulsion, and control. He built a glider with a curved wing to generate lift. Then he ordered his coachman into it and had farm workers pull it down a slope until it gained enough speed to fly. Control, alas, was lacking. The craft crashed after flying a few hundred yards. The coachman survived, but reportedly was not amused.

My students hang glider was almost as low concept as Cayley’s, and though I knew it could fly, control clearly remains an issue. The instructors at Kitty Hawk Kites, at Kill Devil Hills a couple of miles from where the Wright brothers flew the first powered aircraft in 1903’s, explained that piloting requires just five simple motions: lean left or right to turn; push the bar up to land. But students in my class still augered into the sand. One fell hard enough to break the glider’s sturdy aluminum strut. That made me more determined to succeed.

I have always loved to fly, even in lumbering jumbo jets. When the Kitty Hawk Kites school quoted Leonardo as saying, “for once you have tasted flight, you will walk the Earth with your eyes turned skywards,” I sighed in recognition.
Some years back I learned to fly a single engine plane, but flying a small plane is about as thrilling as sitting at a card table. I hoped hang gliding would deliver the unencumbered essence of flight. It certainly delivered the fear. My grip on the control bar was painfully tight as I ran down the lip of the dune. Suddenly I was running in thin air. Flying! After a few seconds the instructors shouted “Flare!” I pushed the control bar over my head and landed, unsteady but on my feet-then headed back uphill. I wanted to feel again that strange, lovely moment aloft.

A glider wing is an efficient way to generate lift, but my seconds-long flight proved that running off a dune doesn’t generate much speed.  Glider flight is a controlled descent; pilots gain altitude only if they catch rising air and ride it aloft. Birds don’t have that problem; they fly with great efficiency and more precision than any aircraft. Sooty shearwaters log almost 40,000 miles migrating from New Zealand to Alaska and back, while ruby-throated hummingbirds can fly 20 hours without stop migrating across the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists still struggle to understand the physiology of avian flight, but light bones and an intricate collaboration among chest and wing muscles appear essential. A hummmingbird’s chest muscles, it would stick out like a 55-gallon drum,” he says. “It would be freakin’ enormous”

Legend has it Icarus fell from the sky because hubris led him too close to the sun, melting the wax that held the feathers on his wings. More likely, his arms just gave out. Uncounted numbers of “birdmen” had died  over the centuries after leaping from tower or cliff not realizing they could never flap homemade wings hard or fast enough to stay aloft. Their modern heirs, BASE jumpers, leap from buildings, cliffs, and bridges, plunge for a few exhilarating moments, then throw out a parachute to slow their fall. Some don wing suits, with baffled fabric wings that generate enough lift to propel the wearer forward at up to 160 miles an hour while falling. J.T. Holmes of Squaw Valley, California, who has made about a thousand wing-suit jumps, says, “It’s as close as human beings can get to flying like a bird.” It’s also extraordinary dangerous: About 12 BASE jumpers die each year. Hitting the mountain while free-falling or after the parachute deploys is a common cause.

The best success in purely human-powered flight came in 1988, when the Daedalus, a light weight aircraft built by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, flew 71,5 miles from the Greek Island of Crete to Santorini. The 69-pound craft, pedaled by a Greek Olympic cyclist, got caught in turbulence as it approached the beach at Santorini. It crashed in the sea, a few yards from the shore.

1935 spreading homemade canvas wings at 10,000 feet, “Bird-man” Clem Sohn rides the wind for 75 seconds. Two years later, a horrified crowd sees the stunt artist’s parachute fail.

1948 aerospace engineer Francis Rogallo and his wife invent the flexible “paraglider” wing as a sort of parachute for space capsules. Human fliers latch on to it.

1955 On the Hiller Flying Platform, a pilot stands atop twin fans and steers by leaning. It proves too unwieldy for military use.

1956  When the U.S. Army orders a dozen De Lackner Aerocycles, one journalist envisions a “cavalry on modern sky-bustling steeds.” Test pilots deem the open-rotor craft unsafe.

1961 Bell engineer Harold Graham straps on a hydrogen peroxide fueled Rocket Belt and flies for 13 seconds.

1960s Modern hang gliding is born as pilots attach flight frames to the Rogallo flexible wing.

1970-1983 The jet-powered Williams Aerial Systems Platform flies, but flops in the military market. Years later, the New York Times calls it “a flying garbage can.”

To solve such problems, Wilbur and Orville Wright had fitted a motor and propeller on a glider. That clanking, smoky machine may have ushered in modern aviation but apparently delivered little joy. The Wirghts also returned to flying unpowered gliders off dunes. But powered aviation did offer hope of a personal aircraft that could soar into the air like a bird, something my glider could not do. enter the rocket men.

After World War II, the American military funded a parade of personal-flight experiments, none of which fulfilled the mission of safe, maneuverable, or stealthy flight. Consider rocket belts the wearer of the belt would fly less than a minute because of limits on the fuel a person can carry. Plus, the device is expensive, noisy, and notoriously  difficult to control. Just ask Bill Suitor, his neighbor Wendell Moore, a Bell Aerospace engineer, needed an average guy to test the Rocket Belt, which he was developing for the U.S. Army in the early 1960x, and recruited 19-year-old Suitor. Now 66, Suitor has flown more than 1,300 times. “Controlling the rockets’ power was the biggest challenge,” he says. “It’s like a fire-breathing dragon.”

Inventors continue to try to bring the comic book fantasy of personal jet flight to life, and Yves Rossy has come closest. This Swiss pilot flings himself out of an aircraft wearing a six-foot-wide carbon-fiber wing of his own invention, powered by four tiny jet engines. In May, Rossy leaped from a helicopter above the Grand Canyon and flew eight minutes before parachuting to Earth. The jets give him powered ascent and the oomph to do loop. That freedom doesn’t come easy; it took Rossy years to master his tiny craft. “I steer myself in space with only my body,” he explains. “To go left, I turn my shoulders left, and that’s it!” He says it’s like parachuting with a wing suit, whose panels between the body and limbs slow a skydiver’s fall, but with more liberty. “It’s awesome, it’s great, it’s fantastic!”

You won’t catch me jumping out of a plane with a wing strapped to my back. But I yearn for even a small measure of Rossy’s joie de vol. after five runs off the Outer Banks dune last April, I was getting closer-able to fly into the wind, then floating gently down onto my feet. It was as if the glider wasn’t there.

I wanted more. Sandra Vernon, a 47-years-old mother of three I my class on the dune, egged me on. She’d been flying towed tandem flights, pulled up to 2,000 feet behind an ultralight. This usually grants a hand glider a good ten-minute flight back down to Earth, even if there are no rising thermals to help keep the craft aloft. “I’m short, I’m chubby, I’m not spry,” Vernon says. “I wish I had been doing this in my 20s. you can’t help but love it.

Challenge accepted, I strapped myself into the harness of a tandem glider with instructor Jon Thompson. He warned that eh moment when the towplane released us would remind me of going over the top of a roller coaster. I’m a coaster fan. This was nothing like that. It felt like falling headfirst off the top of a 2,000-foot-tall bulding. “You can fly now,” Thompson said, genially offering me the controls. “No! I shouted over the wind. In a few moments the glider gained lift and leveled off. My terror waned, and I took control. I banked left, then right-more of a pigeon than a sooty shearwater but flying all the same.

In pursuit of flight, I’m also keeping my eye on the Puffin, a “personal air vehicle” that became an Internet sensation when NASA unveiled it in 2010. Big advances in superefficient electric motors and control systems, which let the air craft feel the intention of the pilot, may make it possible to fly a one-person craft like this safely without typical pilot training. “We are trying to create a horse-and-rider kind of experience,” says Mark Moore, a NASA aerospace engineer who developed the prototype. “A horse is an intelligent vehicle, but it’s only intelligent than the horse could ever discern.”

1977 A British prize set up in 1959 for the first human-powered plane is finally caimed by the Gossamer Condor, which has Mylar wings and a furiously pedaling pilot.

1980s French skydiver Patrick de Gayardon soars in his batlike nylon wing suit. Hed dies testing a new model in 1998.

2000 U.S. defense grants begin funding a program to develop a flying “exoskeleton.” The idea is to create a suit that soldiers can wear to take off and land vertically, with a propeller fan over each shoulder.

2006 Seeking the power of a plane without its confines, Swiss pilot Yves Rossy puts jet engines and carbon-fiber wings on his own body.

2008 Martin Aircraft tests its fan-powered “Jetpack” and says it plans to sell a recreational model. Flight time : 30 minutes Price: $100,000.

2010 NASA’s Puffin concept a 300-pound electric “flying suit,” would stand on its stubby tail for takeoff, then level off to cruise on wings.

The Puffin may never fly, but other inventors are tinkering. JoeBen Bevirt, an entrepreneur in Santa Cruz, California, has already flown a small scale prototype of his version of a flying car. He envisions it as a sleek, red plane with eight electric motors. It would take off and land vertically and fly a hundred miles in an hour, zooming him to a San Francisco meeting in half the time it takes in his Prius. “I want one,” he says flatly. Me too.


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