Stories tagged flight

I want to fly like an eagle to the sea.....
fly like an eagle, let my spirit carry me.

Or, at least, they're unable to prevent themselves from being dropped off a 50-foot platform.

During a 50-foot fall, snakes can glide over 80 feet horizontally. Pretty wild. But watch the video.

Holy cow, this video has everything: feats of engineering, seemingly impossible flight, scientific explanations, and instructions on how to do it yourself!

It's unclear who is actually behind it, but someone at has posted a video of an amazing paper glider that is so aerodynamically efficient, you can "surf" it on a wave of air generated with your hands. I can't put into words how cool this is. Check out the video, and hit up the main site for the .pdf of the template.


Yes, it is perched on a trash can: But only because I think that the trash might provide it with the high calorie diet it would need to operate those large flight muscles.
Yes, it is perched on a trash can: But only because I think that the trash might provide it with the high calorie diet it would need to operate those large flight muscles.Courtesy JGordon
Angels and fairies, if they’re the sorts of things that actually exist, says a biologist from University College London, could never actually fly. That is, if we’re to believe that the way they’re portrayed in art is accurate.

Well, duh. Whether or not angels and fairies can actually fly seems to be something of a non-issue, but… of course. We figured this out a long time ago when we looked at pictures of angels and fairies and thought, well, that doesn’t make a ton of sense. But, no, scientist guy has to go rubbing our faces in it right at the holidays, when angels are feeling really pretty and good about themselves. How do you suppose they feel now, Scrooge? And picking on fairies like that is unconscionable; every time you say a fairy can’t fly, a fairy somewhere gets explosive diarrhea. And fairies live in sock drawers, so you’ve probably ruined some kid’s day too.

But professor Roger Wotton doesn’t care. All the sad angels with body-image issues and violently ill fairies in the world couldn’t stop him from pointing out the fundamental flaws in angel and fairy body design.

First of all, the wings are generally too small for fairies’ and angels’ body sizes. Birds and bats weigh very, very little relative to the area of their wings, otherwise they couldn’t take off. Wotton proposes that the mythical creatures might be able to glide a little, but the wings would need to be totally rigid then, and they’re often depicted in art being folded.

For true flight, Wotton says, angels and fairies would need to have the large, complex muscles of birds and flying insects. But they don’t. (Another fairy is losing bowel control right now.)

So, in the spirit of the holidays, I have drawn a more anatomically correct angel/fairy for you all. Note the delicate limbs, deep, muscular chest, and aerodynamic body. Now you can imagine this realistically perching on top of your Christmas tree, or pulling teeth from beneath your pillow.

You’re welcome! Ho ho ho!


Air France Airbus A330-200 aircraft, similar to the one used for Flight 447
Air France Airbus A330-200 aircraft, similar to the one used for Flight 447Courtesy Christopher Weyer
It's grim news, but the autopsies of the 51 bodies recovered from the June 1 Air France Flight 447 crash in the Atlantic Ocean reveal that the crash victims did not drown. Why is this important? It is looking more and more unlikely that the black boxes from the crash will be recovered (though submarine searches for them will resume next week). So, investigators have to turn to all the other bits of evidence they have to determine the cause of the crash, including clues that can be found in the condition of the recovered bodies.

You can learn a lot from a cadaver recovered from a plane crash. Bits of debris impeded inside bodies can indicate an explosion. The type and location of injury (on the right side or left side of the body) used in conjunction with a seating chart can help pinpoint where an explosion or event might have originated on the plane. Are the bodies burned on the front (indicating a fire in the cabin while the passenger would still be seated with the back protected by their seat) or on their backs (perhaps indicating that they were burned by fire on the ground or floating out of their seats). Are they clothed? Studies have shown that a fully clothed person will have their clothes “blasted off” when they hit the water, which would indicate that the bodies had been ejected from the plane while in the air. And lack of drowning likely indicates that the passengers were dead before, or were killed as a result of, a water impact.

If you are interested in learning more about cadavers and what you can learn with and from them, check out the book Stiff by Mary Roach, it’s an interesting read.

The bodies that are being recovered show no signs of being in an explosion, so that is being ruled out as the cause of the crash at this point. Authorities now believe that the plane was intact when it hit the water, but the cause of the crash is still not known.


I would so not do this: Joseph Kittinger jumps out of the Excelsior III balloon at 102,800 feet.
I would so not do this: Joseph Kittinger jumps out of the Excelsior III balloon at 102,800 feet.Courtesy US Air Force
I attended yet another great Cafe Scientifique event put on by the Bell Museum the other night called: Art and Aeronautics—A Conversation with Tomás Saraceno. Tomás and his teammate Alberto are artists in residence at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and have been working with the Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics department at the University of Minnesota. In short they are building a giant balloon out of reclaimed trash--primarily plastic bags. This talk got me on an balloon science research kick and thought I would share some links:
First off, check out some of the pics of Tomás and Alberto's project, the Museo Aero Solar.

There was lots of talk at the presentation about women's important role in the early days of flight when ballooning dominated. There was even some debate about whether a woman was the first person in space...via the 1920s! I couldn't immediately find any information on this claim on ye old internets, but I would love to hear from any buzz readers who might know more information.

Getting to space by balloon might seem crazy, but that's exactly what the Air Force was trying to do before our attempts with rockets. Check out Project Manhigh(yep its really called that) and Project Excelsior. Several of these early space balloons were piloted by Air Force Colonel Joseph Kittinger, the first, possibly only, man to ever break the speed of sound, without a vehicle. He did it by jumping out of a balloon about 20 miles up.

Students are getting into the high altitude balloon game all over the place as well: reusable experiment platform goes to the edge of space, pics at the edge of space, and legos in space.

I think balloons are my new favorite science obsession.


What on earth am I supposed to do with this thing?: A pterosaur considers his situation.
What on earth am I supposed to do with this thing?: A pterosaur considers his situation.Courtesy John Conway
Paleontology, y’all, paleontology. We’ve got these bones, these fossilized bones. And they’re nice bones, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes they leave a little to be desired when it comes to reconstructing the nitty gritty and sticky details of what living dinosaurs (and pterosaurs, ichthyosaurs, mosasaurs, therapsids, etc) were actually like. A skeleton can give us a good idea of a creature’s general shape; it can show where the muscles went (more or less), what sort of food it ate, how it probably moved—that kind of thing. But how did they behave? What color were they? Exactly how strong were they? There are a whole slew of questions that get to be a little tricky.

So, how do paleontologists go about answering these questions? They get creative, they study all the tiniest details of the fossils, and, sometimes, they look to living animals for analogy—that is to say, if an animal alive today that lives in a similar environment to that of an extinct animal, and has a similar body type to the extinct animal, you might be able to base knowledge of the extinct animal on what you know of the living animal.

It’s a valuable avenue of study, but dinosaurs and their ilk were pretty different, after all, so how far do you think can we take analogies to living creatures?

And now on to the news item.

A Japanese researcher has opened up his sass-box and gotten all up in the faces of paleontologists around the world. Pterosaur specialist paleontologists are particularly fired up, and they’re a dangerous bunch. “Peer review” among pterosaur specialists, as I understand it, involves switchblades, and the majority of the community sports eye-patches.

This scientist, Katsufumi Sato of the University of Tokyo, is saying that pterosaurs (all of the huge extinct flying reptiles) probably maybe couldn’t actually, you know… fly.

Oh no you di’en’t!

Says Sato: Yes, yes I did. Specifically, what the scientist did was place accelerometers on the wings of a couple dozen sea birds on the Crozet Islands. The accelerometers measured, more or less, the flapping force and speed of the birds’ wings.

Among the birds studied were wandering albatrosses, which have the largest wingspans of any living birds. Large seabirds like this have often been used as analogies for pterosaurs for their somewhat similar body shapes. Many pterosaurs probably lived in a similar habitat to modern seabirds as well.

Albatrosses fly by riding shifting wind currents, and by flapping their wings when the wind isn’t suitable, or is absent entirely. Sato found that the seabirds he studied have two flapping speeds, a faster speed for taking off, and a slower speed for staying aloft in the absence of wind. He also noticed that, as this flapping speed is limited by the birds’ strength, it decreases in heavier birds with longer wings.

According to the calculations Sato based off of this data, birds (or pterosaurs) weighing more than about 90 pounds would be unable to fly without using wind currents—they simply wouldn’t be able to flap their wings fast enough to stay in the air. There were certainly pterosaurs that size and much smaller, but a lot of flying reptiles were probably a great deal larger than that (a very conservative estimate for the quetzalcoatlus, for example, would have it weighing around 220 pounds).

The article I read on this research doesn’t get into Sato’s hypothesis much more than that, but I’d assume that this means that larger pterosaurs would then also be unable to take off from anywhere other than, say, a cliff face. I wonder if the implication is also that they wouldn’t be doing any flying at all; that medium to large pterosaurs wouldn’t even be gliding on wind currents because, at some point, they’d need to gain some altitude on their own steam.

But, whatever the specifics, them’s fightin’ words, and pterosaur specialists the world over are no doubt sharpening their boot-spikes, and wrapping their fists in chains.

Is it a valid analogy? Maaaaybeeee… But I’m betting against it. There have been some interesting theories lately about how the largest of the pterosaurs may not have flown as much as we used to think, but they don’t imply that they couldn’t fly at all. In fact, the study I’m thinking of would further distance pterosaurs from large seabirds in terms of behavior and their ecological niches (making any analogies a little less apt).

Other scientists argue that in addition to anatomical and physiological differences that should be considered, the atmosphere of the Mesozoic was, on the whole, somewhat denser, and had higher concentrations of oxygen—factors that would have allowed flight for larger, heavier animals. Actually, I recommend checking out the discussion following the article. There are a bunch of explanations of how pterosaurs could have flown, despite what this study suggests. But, if you do go, bring your knives—they’re an angry bunch.


Atlantis piggyback ride: back to Florida.
Atlantis piggyback ride: back to Florida.
After its 5.8 million mile journey, the space shuttle Atlantis is being returned home to the Kennedy Space Center atop a modified 747 jetliner. They will arrive today, or if weather conditions are not favorable, Tuesday, July 3.

Mission STS-118 will be in August

STS-117 is the 118th shuttle mission and 21st mission to visit the space station. The next mission, STS-118, is slated to launch in August.