The Wright Brothers Never Invented the Airplane--Part II

Friday, September 23, 2011

Yes, I know I owe you an update from last week, but my homework started to get the best of me so I needed to put this on hold temporarily, so I'll combine two weeks' class updates into one post.

I've always joked my end would be death by homework.  Now it's not so funny.  Well, okay, maybe it's just a little funny.

But not to me.  Okay, so I've laughed about it.

 Can we move on?

Did you know the Wright Brothers never really invented the airplane?  They get all the credit for doing so because they were savvy enough to get to the patent office first.  The actual inventor of the airplane was Glenn Curtis (unless you're a die-hard Brazilian and then it's Dumont).

Curtis was commissioned by Alexander Graham Bell to create an engine for a "heavier-than-air" machine, thanks to his stupendous reputation for inventing and working with machinery.  When the private pilots' licenses were issued, he received his first.  Orville Wright received license number five, because at that time, the licenses were issued in alphabetical order.  And then there was that whole Patent Office snafu that any idiot with a finger can Google.

I eagerly awaited last week's class.  I'd often wondered just how a ground school flight instructor would begin explaining such a complex machine.  How did one begin explaining how to navigate and manoeuvre an aircraft through three-dimensional space?  Thankfully, our cars operate on two axes in the Cartesian plane (that diagram you've seen of two lines that intersect):  x and y.  But now we suddenly have z with which to contend.  It almost seems like God gave the morons who can't drive an extra dimension in which to screw up.

 So we started the meat of the lecture with a basic diagram of a plane.  Seemed a likely place to start.  Then we immediately began discussing the aerodynamics.

There are four forces that act upon the aircraft:  Gravity (weight), Lift, Drag and Thrust.  Weight is pretty self-explanatory, especially to a woman.  Lift is the interesting one because it's created out of a combination of airfoil surfaces, thrust, and low/high-pressure spots on the wing.  Actually, lift is created out of a difference in pressure between these forces.  Drag is a difficult one to explain because why it occurs is very tricky (aside from the fact that there are many varying types of drag a pilot needs to know), and thrust is comprised of juicy things like the slipstream (the phenomenon of air created by a propeller that wraps around the body of the plane causing it to yaw), torque, another natural phenomenon that pushes the airplane to the left to counteract the yaw, load factors and finally the gyroscopic effect (the phenomenon that causes the plane to respond to a command 90% later than it's given).

NOW we were talking.  This was the physics' portion and I was in heaven.  Although my Russian flight instructor (who also happens to be my math advisor) goes so fast I'm certain there will be a lot of out-of-class study in order to grasp all of it.

Avro Vulcan Bomber
The angle of attack (AOA) is very important in flying because it affects the amount of lift that acts on the aircraft.  Most standard airfoils (wings) on modern planes have a general AOA of about fifteen percent to the relative wind.  This means the wings are angled at fifteen-degrees to the ground.  (Model airplanes, however, don't have camber wings, they have delta wings, much like most fighter jets, thus, they don't operate under the same laws of general aerodynamics). 

Flaps and ailerons are two control surfaces that deflect air flow and change the camber of the wing (camber, being the general curvature on top of the wing).  The only thing you use a flap for is to steepen your approach on landing.  Remember, I said from last week that a landing is a controlled crash (stall)?  This is why.  Reduce the amount of air flowing over the wing, and your airplane will be heading for a swift landing while you're still trying to see Sarah Palin's house in Russia.

And you've all heard of Bernoulli's Theorem where flight is concerned.  It's not magical or mystical, or even difficult.  It just states, in a nutshell, that the faster an object moves through a liquid (air), the lower the pressure it creates.  The Theorem was created for fluid dynamics, but one can think of air as a type of fluid which carries similar characteristics, thus the theorem can be applied to aerodynamics.

Fast forward to this week.

After learning the external forces that act on the aircraft, we then turned our attentions inward to the instruments.

Compass:  this points to magnetic north but the north on aviation charts is true north.  This produces a phenomenon known as the Turning Error, where the centre of gravity tilts south of the compass heading during a turn.  So you must compensate for it before the turn.  (Briefly, while we're on turning, it isn't the rudder that turns the plane.  The rudder simply tilts the plane, and the natural forces turn the plane.  Try this on your bicycle--you don't first turn your wheel to turn, you first lean into the turn.  It's the same idea.)

The compass suffers from something called Magnetic Deviation, meaning, other metallic objects in the cockpit affect its reading.

Air France Airbus A330
Does anyone remember that horrible Air France flight 447 jumbo jet accident in June 2009?  For the longest time, the BEA (the French version of our NTSB) was unable to determine what caused this Airbus A330 to simply fall out of the sky and crash, killing all 228 people on board.  In fact, the investigation is still on-going.  And it's now labeled as the worst aviation accident to occur since the American Airlines Flight 587 accident in 2001, and it was the first deadly accident to happen to an Airbus A330 while in passenger service.

Why?

The most apparent and largest cause was due to this next instrument:  the Pitot Tube.  In layman's terms, it's an airspeed indicator.  It's a small blade-like tube mounted on the outside of the aircraft.  The Altimeter and the Airspeed Indicator take their input from the Pitot Tube.  On this particular Air France Airbus, the Pitot Tubes had become iced over from lack of a working heating apparatus, thus giving inexact readings on the instruments in the cockpit.  The Pitot Tubes measure constant fluctuations in air-pressure readings, because that is what the instruments measure.  An altimeter is the best example of this, because it doesn't measure height off the ground, it measures the difference in air pressure from one altitude to another as compared to the air pressure on the ground; one reason a pilot must check the daily atmospheric pressure before take-off.

So, that was the gist of the lectures.  But I have a delicious surprise for you.  Next Saturday, October 1, I will be in the cockpit for my first flight lesson, and I will try to get live photos and maybe even some video for you.  This won't be my first flight lesson or first time flying a plane, but it will be for this excursion into my pilot's license.

And now, please place your seats in their upright position, grab your gear and deplane.  We'll see you next week, from the cockpit.

The Penguin Finally Earns Her Wings

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

TTU Plane at Sparta Airport, TN
"Stall an airplane at the wrong time, and it's a crash.  Stall it at the right time, and it's a safe landing."

This is how my FAA ground school instructor opened today's inaugural ground school class.  One of the perks of TTU Aviation membership is free ground school instruction, so two minutes later I was reaching for my credit card (Membership also included the 2012 FAA manual for ground school, my first empty log book, and a really snazzy cool yellow membership card without lamination with my name in red marker). 

I already had hours from flying years ago, but since I was grounded due to an inner-ear problem and then ran out of funds, and regulations have changed so quickly along with the planes themselves, I decided to start from the beginning again, and one of the perks of being one of my Twits is that you get to read about every hair-raising, joy-inducing and mind-numbingly-boring moment as they happen.

Space Shuttle Atlantis in its final rollout to launch pad
at Kennedy Space Center, July 2011
 
I guess my love of flying came from my dad and his side of the family.  Our cousin Gary was an air-traffic controller for the Navy and then the private sector for twenty years (he refers to the both of us as "a couple of fixed-wing nuts" since he has his private pilot certification, too), eventually becoming a supervisor.  My great Uncle Elmer (now deceased) was head mechanic for San Francisco Int'l airport, and his son retired from the same position.  Then I've bored everyone with tales of my great Uncle Keith (also deceased) who worked at McDonnell-Douglas in Saint Louis, on the team of aerospace engineers who designed the original Space Shuttle.

Then there's my dad.  Poor eyesight precluded his fulfilling his dream of flying rotary-wing aircraft (helicopters), but an insatiable love of them didn't preclude his talking about them incessantly, and I think it sort of rubbed off.  (Psst:  Don't tell him, but I plan to surprise him next October 4 on his birthday by chartering a plane, landing on the hill of a nearby farm and then taking him up and letting him fly again.  That's been another little bucket list item of mine and I can't wait.  I'll post later where to send flowers.)

If you've never been at the controls of a fixed-wing aircraft, flying is like a secret no one else knows.  Feeling the G-forces as you manoeuver, knowing the risks of flying beyond the specifications and limitations of the craft (just because you've always wanted to know what it's like to fly through a Cumulus cloud and feel alive when that lightning strikes your head), being fully prepared for what to do if you lose an engine on your twin-engine Cessna, while losing attitude control, while you're low on fuel, and all while discovering that you've suddenly run out of Twinkies.

It's. a. rush.  Well, not the Twinkie part, but follow along.

I was under the impression that there were five classificatons of pilot licenses:  Private without instruments (single-engine), private with instruments (single-engine), private double-engine land, private double-engine water, and commercial (where you could fly for a major carrier like American Airlines).

Man, I hate to be wrong.  Classes are:

  • Grade - determines the kinds of flying a pilot can do
    • Student Pilot - local solo training flights without passengers (I will have this as soon as next week)
    • Recreational Pilot - local uncontrolled day flights 1 passenger
    • Private Pilot - flights worldwide with passengers, non-profit (I will have this after my first solo flight in eight-ten hours from now of in-plane time with my instructor)
    • Commercial Pilot - paid flying allowed, can be airline copilot (Think bush pilots of Alaska)
    • Airline Transport Pilot - paid flights, can be airline captain
  • Ratings - what aircraft a pilot can fly and how - VFR or IFR
    • Category - Airplane, Glider, Rotorcraft, Lighter Than Air...
    • Class - eg Airplane Single or Multi Engine Land/Sea
    • Type - needed for each turbojet or heavier than 12,500 lbs
    • Instrument - separate for each Class and Type Rating

VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules (Flying only by visual ground cues; something you can't use, for instance, while your city suffers the effects of hurricane Lee [!]), and IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules (You need to know how to fly by instruments if you wish to fly at night, solo, or even get your water certificate; if you wish to fly into Nashville Airport, you don't need IFR because it's a Class-A airport, but if you wish to fly into Atlanta, then you need to have your instrument rating or else they will deny you permission to land, because they're a Class-B airport.)

Over the next three or four months, follow my weekly account as I relate to you the struggles of juggling a busy Astrophysics/Applied Mathematics schedule with additional book training for passing my Private Pilot certificate, while dealing with Systemic Lupus and Fibromyalgia and debilitating fatigue sometimes so severe I can't hold a fork.

And don't forget the Twinkies.  Will keep you fully updated on the supply.

This has been my dream since I was a kid--to hold a Commercial and eventual ATP Certificate.  So what's an Astrophysicist who also holds advanced degrees in Applied Mathematics want with a license to fly idiot people on jumbo jets cross-country?

It's all about the flight, baby.

And I'll end with my favourite DaVinci quote about flying:

"When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return."