Human-Powered Helicopter Wins Award (VIDEO)

Oh Canada! First you gave us William Shatner, now you give us a human-powered helicopter.

A team of engineers called AeroVelo has won a $250,000 award for creating a human-powered helicopter that could fly three meters off the ground for 60 seconds while keeping the cockpit within a ten-square-meter area. The American Helicopter Society sponsored this Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition, and the prize money has been on offer for nearly 30 years.

Man-powering a helicopter is tough to do since humans don’t have strength to lift themselves off the ground without large rotors. Of course, large rotors are heavy, making it hard for a human to get the helicopter off the ground. This is the reason all those Renaissance-era experiments with birdlike flapping wings never worked. To cut down on weight, the team used super-light materials that are too delicate to be flown outdoors.

AeroVelo’s flight lasted 64.11 seconds, a world record, and reached up to 3.3 meters in altitude. As you can see from the video, drift was a problem with this and all other competitors, with the machine drifting up to 9.8 meters.

So will this be the new way to get to the hockey game? Probably not. The personal jetpack has been around for decades but never took off either. The Martin Jetpack company is trying to change that, although they haven’t yet made their jetpacks — which will probably cost in the six figures — commercially available yet. Popular Mechanics did an interesting article on why jet packs aren’t feasible.

Solar Airplane Completes Cross-Country Flight

If you have been following along on the journey of Solar Impulse, the solar airplane that was set to fly across the United States, we have good news: the journey is over after a successful flight from Washington to New York on Saturday.

The two-month, ground-breaking flight started in California and took 14,000 viewers along for the ride in streaming video. The “Clean Generation” initiative flight of Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg successfully landed at New York John F. Kennedy International Airport at 11:09 p.m. EDT. Flying across the United States, Solar Impulse was powered only by energy that came from 12,000 solar cells installed on its wings and horizontal stabilizer.Making aviation history, the team of Solar Impulse has come a long way but has even further to go. In 2015, they plan on flying around the world, totally on solar power of course.

The Solar Impulse team will be available to the public at JFK International Airport on Saturday July 13 from 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday July 14 from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Airlines Use Loopholes To Avoid Paying For Damaged Bags

If an airline damages a piece of your luggage, surely they will pay to repair or replace it, right? Don’t be so sure. I’ve been very lucky over the years in checking bags but my luck ran out on a flight to Chicago from San Francisco over the weekend, when I found out that there are plenty of loopholes that airlines use to avoid paying for damaged luggage.

I prefer to travel light and bring my suitcase as a carry-on, if I can, but when I travel with my two young sons, as I did on this occasion, I tend to check my suitcase because we’re traveling with car seats, a stroller and a host of other items to keep our kids content on the flight. For me, it’s usually worth it to pay to check the bags at the curbside check-in, and I did so on Saturday.

The skycap was terrific; he actually came right to our car and wheeled our suitcases over to the counter himself. But when we arrived at O’Hare later that evening, the pull handle on my beloved Burton/Gravis suitcase was broken. I waited in line at the airline’s baggage counter and was told by a pretty young woman that I was, essentially, out of luck.”Our policy doesn’t cover protruding parts,” she said.

“Protruding parts?” I said, wondering what that included.

“Wheels, straps, pull handles, hanger hooks, nothing like this,” she said.

I appealed to her supervisor, who looked like a retired boxer.

“The suitcase is still useable,” he said, eyeing it over.

“How so?” I asked, showing him that the handle was completely broken.

“You can pick it up and carry it,” he said.

It seemed like a preposterous suggestion. Carry a suitcase through the airport? I think that Bernard D. Sadow invented the rolling suitcase back in 1970 precisely to relieve people of that burden, but technically the supervisor was right. He told me that I could send a complaint to the airline’s customer relations department but I know from past experience that doing that is typically the equivalent of urinating into a wind gust.

Many airlines apparently have the same policy regarding “protruding” baggage parts. (Though one airline apparently gave this writer a credit for their checked bag fee after they made a fuss.) The sheet that the airline gave me has a laundry list of items or for which it won’t assume liability. Here are some examples:

-Overpacked (zipper or seam damage)
-Damage resulting from TSA inspection
-Sports item not packed in hard-sided case
-Infant/child restraint devices, including car seats and stroller
-Photographic equipment, computers, any other electronic equipment, jewelry, cash, documents, furs, antiques, liquids, medicines, art or any other valuable items.

So forget about trying to tell them that you packed a Van Gogh, an original copy of the Magna Carta or a $50,000 mink coat. If you take a look at my suitcase in the photo above, you can probably tell that it isn’t very valuable, and in fact, I’ve gotten years of great use out if it. I should probably just get a new one, right? Maybe so, but I develop a strong attachment to a good piece of luggage. That bag has been my travel companion on dozens of memorable trips all over the world. I’m not quite ready to say goodbye.

I thought about trying to super glue or duct tape it, but now my plan is to bring the suitcase with me, broken protruding pull handle and all, the next time I travel to a developing country. I’m afraid that fixing things has become a lost art here in our disposable society but in some places, cheap fix-it people still exist and thrive. My suitcase will live to travel another day. But I think I’ll carry my bag on board with me next time, because in its weak and fragile state, it needs me now more than ever.

UPDATE, 5/22/2013: I sent a complaint e-mail to this airline and ten days later received a $150 voucher toward a future purchase with this airline. Not quite as good as money to repair or replace the bag, but not bad at all. The moral of the story is that even if they tell you at the airport that they aren’t liable for your damaged bag, it’s worth it to follow up with a complaint.

[Photo credit: Dave Seminara]

Texting While Flying Cause Of Fatal Crash

It’s likely cockpits will come under increased scrutiny after it’s been confirmed texting is to blame for a fatal crash in Missouri – a first in commercial aviation history.

A report by Bloomberg explains the pilot of an emergency medial helicopter flying over Missouri was sending and receiving text messages just before a 2011 accident. According to preliminary reports by the National Transportation Safety Board, the helicopter crashed in a field after running out of fuel.

The crash killed the pilot, a flight nurse, a paramedic and a patient who was being flown from one hospital to another. The pilot had sent and received 20 texts in flight, and another 13 were logged on his phone in the 71 minutes prior to the flight. The pilot, who also told a coworker he hadn’t slept well the night before the flight, failed to refuel the helicopter before taking off.

Although the crash is different from when a motorist takes his or her eyes off the road and causes an accident, which is commonly seen on the road, it’s still a classic example of dividing attention in a way that compromises safety.

The Colorado-based helicopter company, Air Methods, operates more than 300 air-medical bases in 48 states. According to reports, Air Methods has long prohibited the use of electronic devices by pilots, but has implemented a “zero tolerance policy” since the accident.

This use of electronic devices in the cockpit occasionally makes headlines, including a few years ago when a plane overshot the runway because the crew was on their personal laptops. But on the other hand, text messages have also been used to save lives, such as when an aircraft controller landed a small airplane that had lost electricity by texting the pilot. Pilots are allowed to use electronic devices – including laptops and iPads – when the plane is cruising.

[via Skift]

[Photo credit: Flickr user Melina Manfrinatti]

New Aviation Technology Brings Safer Travel Today, Looks To Future

Commercial aviation technology has come a long way since its first flight in 1914, a 23-minute flight between St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida. Along the way, a great amount of the technology in today’s aircraft, enabling travelers to fly around the world, was developed right here in the United States. That tradition continues with some recent advances, in use right now or on their way, that address current needs and future concerns.

In Alaska, landing a commercial aircraft has its unique challenges. Mountains surround the airport in Juneau; Sitka’s small runway or Kodiak’s strip that ends at the side of a mountain have first officers watching the captains-only landings.

“The weather around here can be unpredictable,” said Clarissa Conley, the F.A.A. manager for Juneau International Airport in a New York Times report. “You name it, we’ve got it. And the terrain can make flying here pretty challenging, particularly when visibility is low.”

Addressing that specific issue of today, Alaska Airlines developed satellite guidance, a navigation technique that made landing at Alaska’s airports far safer and is a big part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s plan to modernize the nation’s air traffic system.Meanwhile, looking to the future, NASA is about to wrap up a three-week flight test of biofuels that began on February 28. Called the Alternative Fuel Effects on Contrails and Cruise Emissions (ACCESS) research, NASA is flying a DC-8 “flying laboratory” out of its Dryden facility, doing tests on biofuel that promise to collect data on emissions, engine performance and contrails. NASA does that by flying one of their Falcon jets as close as 300 feet behind the DC-8, mostly over restricted airspace.

But an AVWeb post notes NASA saying that “if weather conditions permit, the Falcon jet will trail commercial aircraft flying in the Southern California region, in coordination with air traffic controllers.” NASA does say that if following a commercial airliner, the distance will be ten miles between aircraft.

The NASA study and similar investigations by the European community hope to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and, in turn, reduce emissions by the commercial airline industry.

[Photo credit – Flickr user Niels van Eck]