Like many good ideas in our family, my seven-year-old son thought of it first. He’s recently gotten into Internet Radio, especially Tonik Radio out of Dublin. Tonik and most other stations show a Google map with pointers to where their listeners are. I find it kind of freaky that our house is clearly indicated on a map for all the other listeners to see. The kid just thinks it’s cool. He’s of a generation that has always known the Information Age and thus has a whole different attitude towards privacy.
So as he listens to House and Trance he surfs the globe, looking up where the other Tonik Radio listeners are–the cluster of fans in Dublin, the farmer in Israel, and the guy in the apartment block in Sterlitimak, Russia. Zooming in with the power of satellite photography, he can see what far-off countries look like from above. In some places he can even use Google Street View.
Once he gets bored hunting down his fellow radio fans, he starts exploring the Terra Incognita of the spaces between the points. This week he conducted a close-up survey across the Pacific and happened upon the Johnston Atoll, a lonely little former U.S. military base that I had never heard of.
I also show him places where I’ve been. He got an aerial view of the amusement park in Baghdad where I ate mazgouf. When the satellite took its photo, a small plane was flying over the riverside park and left its shadow on the water of the Tigris. A week later I came into my office and he’d found it again. He’s learning to navigate.
I can even show him my past, hovering with him above the Danish farm where I was an exchange student back in my teens. I brought him up the country lane to the nearest highway and its bus stop, the same route I rode with my bike when I wanted to go to Slagelse, the nearest town. The hedge and ditch where I hid my bike before I caught the bus are still there.
Strangely, this obsession with the computer hasn’t killed his interest in regular maps or his light-up globe. So if you have a young kid who’s curious about the world, try surfing Google Maps. It’s more than a bit Orwellian, but it’s a lot of fun.
In these modern times most of us have become very reliant on technology – some would say a bit too much so. But no one will accuse the 24 sailors on the Voyage to Rapanui expedition of being too technology dependent. The group will soon set off on an ocean journey that will see them crossing more than 10,000 miles of open water without the use of any kind of modern navigational tool. That means they’ll be sailing the Pacific Ocean without GPS, a compass or even maps of any kind. Instead they’ll use traditional navigational techniques, which date back thousands of years, to help them find the way to their remote destination.
Each of the sailors on this journey are Māori – the indigenous Polynesian people who live in New Zealand. Their ancestors once sailed the Pacific Ocean using only the movement of the currents and the sun, moon and stars to guide them safely across the sea. These modern day explorers intend to do the same and recapture a bit of their cultural heritage in the process. Their destination is the island of Rapanui, better known as Easter Island, which is one of the most remote places on our planet. Locating it without navigational charts could be akin to finding a needle in a haystack, however.
The team will split into two crews of 12 with each crew manning a traditional double-hulled Māori sailing canoe. Sometime in the next few days they’ll set out from New Zealand and begin the long journey to Easter Island. Ironically they’ll be using social media to keep all of us updated on their progress with a Twitter feed, Facebook page and Google+ account all dedicated to the voyage.
Saint Brendan was an Irish holy man who lived from 484 to 577 AD. Little is known about his life, and even his entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia is rather short. What we do know about him mostly comes from a strange tale called “the Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator,” written down in the ninth century and rewritten with various changes in several later manuscripts.
It’s an account of a seven-year journey he and his followers took across the Atlantic, where they met Judas sitting on a rock, landed on what they thought was an island only to discover it was a sea monster, were tempted by a mermaid, and saw many other strange and wondrous sights. They got into lots of danger, not the least from some pesky devils, but the good Saint Brendan used his holy might to see them through.
They eventually landed on the fabled Isle of the Blessed far to the west of Ireland. This is what has attracted the attention of some historians. Could the fantastic tale hide the truth that the Irish came to America a thousand years before Columbus?
Sadly, there’s no real evidence for that. While several eager researchers with more imagination than methodology have claimed they’ve found ancient Irish script or that places like Mystery Hill are Irish settlements, their claims fall down under scrutiny.
But, as believers like to say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and there are some tantalizing clues that hint the Irish really did journey across the sea in the early Middle Ages. It’s firmly established that Irish monks settled in the Faroe Islands in the sixth century. The Faroes are about halfway between Scotland and Iceland. Viking sagas record that when they first went to settle Iceland in the late ninth century, they found Irish monks there. There are also vague references in the Viking sagas and in medieval archives in Hanover hinting that Irish monks made it to Greenland too.
%Gallery-155425%From Greenland, of course, it’s not much of a jump to North America. The monks wanted to live far away from the evils of the world and were willing to cross the ocean to do so.
How did they sail all that distance? In tough little boats called currachs, made of a wickerwork frame with hides stretched over it. One would think these soft boats with no keel wouldn’t last two minutes in the open ocean, but British adventurer Tim Severin proved it could be done. In 1976, he and his crew sailed a reconstruction of a medieval currach on the very route I’ve described. The boat, christened Brendan, was 36 feet long, had two masts, and was made with tanned ox hides sealed with wool grease and tied together with more than two miles of leather thongs. While Brendan says sailing it was like “skidding across the waves like a tea tray,” the team did make it 4,500 miles across the ocean. His book on the adventure, “The Brendan Voyage,” is a cracking good read.
Although Severin proved the Irish could have made it to America, it doesn’t mean they did. Severin had the advantage of modern nautical charts and sailed confident in the knowledge that there was indeed land where he was headed. So until archaeologists dig up a medieval Irish church in North America, it looks like St. Brendan’s voyage will remain a mystery.
Handheld GPS devices are a popular tool for outdoor enthusiasts who regularly hike or backpack deep into the backcountry. They can be an indispensable piece of equipment that comes in handy for navigating through remote regions, and for those who know how to use them, they can quite literally be a lifesaver. The problem is, the devices can also be quite complex to use, which is very daunting for those who would like to be able to take advantage of their basic functionality, without having to earn a degree in computer science to do so. The Backtrack D-Tour from Bushnell is designed specifically with those people in mind. The tiny little device is a perfect companion for casual hikers, runners, or other active people who are looking for an easy to use alternative to a more full functional GPS device.
Weighing in at just six ounces, the Backtrack still manages to pack in some great features. The unit functions as a digital compass, while providing such data as the current time, temperature, and altitude. It also allows users to mark up to five different locations and then navigate to those places. The Backtrack will record your path as you hike, measuring distance traveled, current speed, and average speed as well. And when you get home, you can connect the device to your computer to save your routes and share them with your friends too.
If all of that sounds like what you would expect out of a full-featured GPS, then you’d be right. Those are all features found in more expensive and complex models. But the Backtrack user interface is designed to be easy to understand and provide everything you need to know at a glance, and it does that very well. In my testing of the product, I was able to learn the basic use of the Backtrack D-Tour in a matter of minutes, and I was off and running with the device shortly there after. Along the way, I was never confused as to how the device operated or what exactly was being shown on the display at any given time.
Bushnell has built the Backtrack to be withstand the rigors of the trail, and when you hold it in your hand, it does indeed feel rugged, despite its lack of bulk. It is also weather resistant, which means it can be used in the snow and rain, although I wouldn’t recommend submersing it in water. Unlike its more sophisticated cousins, the Backtrack probably wouldn’t survive a good dousing in water.
Battery life was another strong point of the Backtrack. While many GPS devices suck through batteries very quickly, this device sips power, keeping the unit up and running for as much as 20 hours on three AAA batteries. I used my Backtrack for more than 15 hours while testing it, and it has yet to run out of juice. I also like that it uses batteries that are easy to find, so carrying a spare set isn’t a problem on longer treks either.
Of course, this simplistic approach to GPS means that we are giving up some key features that many would expect on other devices. Most notably, the Backtrack doesn’t include any kind of base maps at all and uses only arrows to indicate which direction you should be going. It also doesn’t have much memory, nor is it expandable, which limits the number of waypoints that can be set at any given time. As you would expect, there is no turn-by-turn navigation at all and forget about a database of points of interest, such as campsites or trailheads. I also found that the Backtrack was a bit slow to lock on to the satellite that provides its navigational data, although once it did connect, it held the signal well, even while under a canopy of trees.
But the lack of those options is not meant to be a limitation of this device, but a strength. As I’ve mentioned several times, this is a GPS unit for the common person, and when viewed in that context, it does its job very well. Bushnell has stayed with the “keep it simple” philosophy, and as a result, the Backtrack is a great option for runners, hiker, cyclists, and others who want to track their routes, speed, and distance. With a list price of just $119, it also is a rather inexpensive way to get the GPS features you really need, without breaking the bank or struggling to learn how to use the device.
The Backtrack would make a great holiday gift for the outdoor enthusiast on your list. Even if they already have a more fully featured GPS device, they may appreciate this one as well, as it makes a perfect companion for those outdoor excursions that don’t require more complex features. It is also a great gift for those looking to track their fitness progress as well.
Last week I found myself flying to London with a captain who had started his career in pretty much the same way I did-he too had worked for a couple of airlines in Alaska, albeit more than a decade before me.
As we headed out to dinner, we happened to run into another pilot I knew who, coincidentally, flew for Era Alaska just as I had. Even more surprising was that his co-pilot flew for an airline in the Northwest Territories of Canada.
We agreed to have dinner together at an Indian restaurant ten minutes from the hotel in London. While waiting for some tandoori to arrive, the subject of the Discovery Channel show, Flying Wild Alaska came up. It led to a few wistful stories about the times when we were doing that kind of flying, twenty to thirty years earlier.
“It looks like a lot of fun and adventure from the comfort of your living room, but it’s not as much fun when you’re low on gas, in a mile visibility while trying to read a map and hoping to cut the Mead River. It makes you appreciate this job (flying a Boeing across the Atlantic to London) so much more,” Hank said.
We all agreed. It’s nice to get a little perspective every now and then, and the Discovery Channel show about flying in the Alaskan bush gave us a not so gentle reminder.
But then someone began to check off the items a modern-day bush pilot has that we didn’t back then. At the top of the list was a GPS. While I had flown with a Loran-C for navigation, its accuracy up north wasn’t anything like the GPS. The other pilots at the table didn’t even have a Loran.
“Just a compass and a map up on the north slope.” Hank said.
Next up, I mentioned the real de-icing equipment they have now, not to mention the hangars. Just a few hours earlier I had been writing the de-icing post for Gadling, so the memories of crawling on the curved and slippery wing twelve feet in the air while scraping the ice off were fresh in my mind. Our de-ice ‘equipment’ at the time was a pump bottle you’d find at a garden store.
As tough as we had it, I imagined inviting perhaps another four pilots back from the past to join us. They would be the early bush pilots of the twenties and thirties who would have given anything to have the airplanes we had. So in deference to them, I thought I’d use a few of my grandpa’s photos to illustrate the differences in air travel in Alaska back then and today.
Gravel bars, while sometimes rough, were a preferred summertime runway.
During the first few years of flying in Alaska, there were no official runways. The most ideal landing spot was in Fairbanks, where flying really took hold, at a horse track that was converted into a landing strip. Outside of Fairbanks, landings were made in the summer on gravel bars along rivers or ‘domes’ which were treeless hill tops above a village. Locals made attempts at clearing runways, but their lengths were initially too short or had too many obstacles.
A few towns, such as Nome and Kotzebue were essentially treeless, but runways still needed to be built to accomodate airplanes on wheels since the ground was usually soft in the summer.
Winter flying opened up a lot of areas to landing, especially for airplanes equipped with skis. One concern was at the beginning and end of the season; when a decision had to be made whether to depart with skis or wheels. It wasn’t always obvious how much snow the destination airport would have. The short days in the winter presented a problem as well, since there was no lighting to mark the frozen ‘runway.’
What should we go with today, skis or wheels?
Airplanes with floats became an option starting in the thirties and that combination continues today as a popular way to get around during the five or so months out of the year that allow for it.
Bellanca float plane on the Chena river in Fairbanks in the ’30s
Today the main cities and towns all have runways that are lighted and plowed. So ski flying is used mainly for off-airport operations onto lakes, glaciers and even arctic ice-flows. But the airplane is still the most vital way to move about the state, as few towns outside of Anchorage and Fairbanks are connected by roads.
Kenai, Alaska airport today. Note the float plane ‘strip’ next to the paved runway.
Open cockpit flying
Aside from the landing gear choice, a huge number of changes have come about since the early days of flying in Alaska. In 1924, my grandpa, Noel Wien, was operating out of Fairbanks with an open cockpit biplane called a Hisso Standard that could seat two crammed-in passengers in the front seat. They were required to dress as if they were taking a long winter dog-sled ride, as the wind chill, even at 50 degrees fahrenheit, was bone chilling. This, coupled with the air-cooled engine, prevented year-round flying.
Note the two passengers in the front seat. Legroom wasn’t a complaint back then.
Passengers had to bundle up even in the summer when flying in the open-cockpit Standard
Heated, pressurized cabins make it possible to get around in a t-shirt for many passengers.
In winter of 1925, my grandpa toured the states to look for an air-cooled, fully enclosed cabin airplane that would be capable of flying through an Alaskan winter.
Unfortunately, that airplane didn’t exist yet in America. After visiting several manufacturers who insisted they’d have just such an airplane in another year, Noel settled on a Fokker F.III he found in New York. It had no brakes, the pilot sat outside and the engine was still water-cooled. However, the passengers would ride enclosed in a cabin inspired by a Pullman-train that included upholstered couch type seats, and curtains. At least the passengers would be warm. He operated that airplane for the next two winters before a fully enclosed cabin aircraft with air-cooled engines became available.
The first enclosed-cabin air service in Alaska. Although the pilot still sat in the open.
Passengers rode inside in leather armchair style seats
Today travelers flying in Alaska may find themselves tucked in a Cessna with fold down seats and freight strapped down next to them, or they might have the opportunity to fly between the major cities in an Alaska Airlines 737 “combi” configuration that places the freight in the front separated with a wall from the abbreviated passenger cabin.
Passengers behind a wall and freight in front on this Alaska 737 “Combi”
Turboprop aircraft like the Dash-8 and Beech 1900 are a common way to get people and freight around between the towns as well.
An Era Alaska Beech 1900 is loaded with freight from a dogsled
The 150 h.p. Hisso engine mounted to the large WWI Standard trainer provided enough horsepower to get out of some short strips, but only when the airplane wasn’t carrying a lot of weight. I ran across this video from 1927 that shows my grandpa departing Nome in a fully loaded Standard. I was a bit shocked at the lack of performance.
Compare that to a recent bush pilot competition in Valdez where highly modified Super Cubs and Maules compete for the shortest takeoff roll. Granted, the pilots are flying empty airplanes with a bit of a headwind, but my grandpa would have given anything for this kind of bush plane.
The OX-5 and Hisso engines were able to fly between 50 and 300 hours before requiring an overhaul. My grandpa found that he could get closer to the 300 hour time if he changed the oil every five hours (essentially after each trip).
Today, the piston engines flown in Cessna 207s can go for 2,000 hours before an overhaul and the 1,100 horsepower turbine engines in a Beech 1900 can fly for 6,000 hours before being rebuilt.