Welcome to look it up, a series where we bring you facts so frickin’ cool that they almost feel like fiction. After all, the world’s a crazy place.
In each edition of look it up, we’ll deep dive into a different topic and bring you all sorts of fringey facts to ponder. If you follow any of the many links in this article, you’ll find Wikipedia pages and other sources like mind-bending YouTube videos to help tell the story (ok, that one was just for fun.)
Don’t miss the videos of proximity wingsuiting, paragliding, and a Zeppelin explosion hidden in this week’s article.
Today, on Look it up we’ll talk about flight
At any given moment there are about 9,728 planes in the air over Earth. That’s almost fifty planes per country. But of course, most countries are barely responsible for any of those flights. The vast majority fly from and between just a few nations in North America, Asia, and Western Europe.
These days, it’s usually cheaper to fly than it is to drive. Planes are more fuel efficient than cars now. That’s right, even the biggest passenger plane in the world, the Airbus A380, averages 72 mpg per seat. That’s better than my mom’s Prius. And mid-size planes can hit way higher fuel efficiencies at over 100 mpg per seat.
Wright back to the beginning
Now, we’ve come a long way since the Wright brothers first took off back in 1903. In fact, these days, there are planes with wider wingspans than the Wright Bros’ first flight. Take the Boeing 747, for example. It’s wingspan is 195 feet which is more than one and a half times the Wright brothers’ first flight of 120 feet. However, their feat is still no less impressive.
That’s because humans have been watching birds rule the skies since our earliest ancestors. It wasn’t the Wright brothers who first thought up the idea of human flight. Countless other inventors had theorized and even attempted to make flying machines in the past. Each met with varying degrees of success. Balloon based air travel had been around for over a century.
Dreams of flying
Even Leonardo Da Vinci back in the 1400’s famously designed (but did not build) a wide array of flying machines, including what is believed to be the prototype for an early helicopter. However, no one’s attempt at early flying machines got off the ground until Orville and Wilbur took a run at it.
After all, flight is an immensely complex process. It took natural evolution over three thousand million years to produce birds from single celled life. The first birds are believed to have appeared around the same time as the first mammals. If you compare that to human flight, the earliest recorded human civilizations (not the earliest humans) are about 6,000 years old, and we’ve been flying for about 115 of those years. That’s only one fifty-second of our history as a societal species spent in the air. So if human civilization all happened in a year, we learned to fly in the last week of it.
But these days we don’t just fly in planes. After all, one thing humans are really well adapted for is inventing new things. As a species we are constantly pushing the bar of possibility a little further into the unknown. These days, in addition to the wide array of aircrafts you can pilot, people also hang glide, parachute, parasail, and even fly in wingsuits. That’s right, it took us 5,900 years to discover how to fly, and then only 100 years to do it wearing nothing but a high tech body suit.
Base jumping vs. Sky diving
The moment you mention wingsuiting, most people think of crashing into trees at 200 mph. It’s well known to be a terribly dangerous sport. But the truth is, that’s not exactly the case. There’s a big difference between skydiving and base jumping, and both can be done with a chute, or with a wingsuit. Skydiving is really quite safe and there are very few accidents and even fewer deaths. Base Jumping is extremely dangerous and causes the vast majority of airborne deaths.
That’s because base jumpers take off from the ground by jumping off of cliffs, buildings, or other high points. But no matter where they jump from, the ground, the cliff face, or their surroundings are very close at hand. That alone adds risky proximity and delicate air currents. However, many base jumpers who wingsuit take it even further by flying as close as they can to objects or the mountainside. Many describe proximity as giving them the greatest rushes. That’s because in relation to unmoving objects, your speed feels amplified.
Skydiving, however, is when you jump out of a plane and it is carefully regulated. Skydivers go through rigorous training and there are legal requirements before it can be done alone, or with special equipment like wingsuits. Hundreds of jumps and countless hours of education and conditioning go into the training to pilot a wingsuit. If you’re curious, it’s on page 143 of the USPA Skydiver’s information manual.
How birds fly
After insects birds are the planet’s oldest aviators. Millions of years of evolution has caused birds to diversify and adapt to all types of airborne needs. Some birds dart quickly between bushes low to the ground, others soar high and slow on sea breezes while scanning the water for fish. Some birds catch prey by diving at full speed and others dig in the dirt.
Each different bird has evolved different features for different types of flight. Birds that soar have wide, cambered and slotted wings, with broad feathers to allow for efficient gliding. Birds that fly at higher speeds closer to the ground have gapless, tapered wings that allow for faster movement and maneuverability.
Hummingbirds get around this trouble by flipping their wings over on the backstroke and actually using both sides of their wings for lift. Tyson Hedrick, a biologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill discovered this using high-tech cameras that hummingbirds actually fly by sort of ‘flipping their wrists’ and causing their wings to flip over every half beat. Wouldn’t it be nice to fly with a flick of your wrists? For that reason, hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backwards, and among the few who can hover in place.
Insects face even more of a challenge in flight than birds do. That’s because a smaller animal actually has to flap its wings more to stay aloft. Imagine trying to wave your whole arm back and forth hundreds of times per minute. (That’s not even approaching a humming bird’s 70 times per second or a housefly’s average of 190 times per second.) Your arms would get pretty tired pretty fast.
All insects fly by one of two methods. Dragonflies, damselflies, and mayflies all fly using a method called direct flight in which their wings are controlled by two muscles that attach to the base of the wings and work somewhat like the pistons in an engine to set the wings in motion. However, all other insects fly using muscles inside their torso that aren’t actually attached to their wings. The muscles, instead, contract their thorax(body) and the wings which are attached flap because of this movement. So when a house fly beats it’s wings 190 times per second, it is contracting it’s thorax for every single one of those wingbeats. Now that’s weird.
Humans don’t come with wings, so over the years we’ve had to learn to make our own. And we’ve been at it a long time. Human aviation dates back thousands of years to early kite-flying. It was in the late 18th century, with the discovery of hydrogen gas that human flight really started in earnest. By the end of the century, aircraft were being used in warfare.
In 1900, the first Zeppelin flew and it ushered in a new era in aviation. Zeppelins became the way of the future and scheduled flights were underway before World War I broke out. Blimp technology was only pushed to new heights during and after the war. However, the Hindenburg disaster in 1936 sealed hydrogen-powered flight’s fate. Fascinating story, check it out here. Or check out the original video footage of the explosion here.
And we all know the story of how the Wright brothers built the first functioning manned aircraft. They built the plane by hand and had their motor custom made to power their propellers, which were also hand made. That first craft made four flights up to 850 feet in length. These days, we can fly around the entire globe only stopping for fuel twice, we can fly faster than sound, and oh yeah… we can fly to space.
And although flying an aircraft is pretty cool, these days you can do it with less. Since Louis-Sébastien Lenormand performed the first public, recorded parachute jump in 1783 we’ve been coming up with new, better ways to fly for ourselves. Here’s what we’ve come up with.
Pretty much anyone of reasonable size and health can pay between $200-$400 to jump out of a plane these days. There are skydiving outfits all over the world that offer tandem jumps for first timers. With just an hour or two of training, you could be falling from 13,000 feet. Sounds fun right?
Paragliding, parasailing, and kiteboarding:
Any windsport named ‘para’ uses some sort of parachute to propel flight or motion. Usually these ‘wings’ are wide and rectangular or oval shaped. Parasailing and paraboarding are over the water. Paragliding can take you through the airspaces of the highest mountain ranges. Although it takes quite a bit of training and equipment to get started, just about anyone can learn to do it.
Not for the faint of heart or the short of patience. Wingsuiting requires no less than 200 jumps on record to be done legally. So, needless to say you’re going to be pretty well practiced and experienced by then. But if you start skydiving, you might rack up that many in no time. It’s pretty addictive.
These days, you never even need to leave the ground in order to fly. Drones are everywhere these days and are an affordable and easy way to take flight. With as little as one hundred bucks, you can pick up an old drone on the internet. Even box stores sell them for less than $200 now. You may not think it’s very similar, but just wait until you fly a drone with a VR headset remote. There’s a whole new world on its way, let me tell you.
The future of flight
There’s a lot coming in the world of flight in the next hundred years. After all, we still haven’t even talked about spaceflight! Elon Musk is really planning to colonize Mars. Too long, didn’t watch: ‘He’s not kidding around.’
And you may not be trying to live out your old age on Mars, but it might be cool to try flying at least once in your life. After all, you’ve walked, ran, jumped, swam, climbed, biked, paddled, and whatever else’d your way through life until now. But have you ever flown?
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