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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Newton, et al

A light mist hangs over Chicago’s O’Hare field. The ramps and taxiways are wet, reflecting the silver, red, white and blue of the American Airlines planes as they maneuver into and out of the gates. An Air India 777, decked out in white, red and orange, lumbers along towards the international terminal, approaching the end of what must have been one long flight. At the same time, another 777, this one in the clean lines of the latest JAL livery, heads towards the runways, looking for a really long one, I suppose. Several hundred passengers settling in for a 13 hour flight. That’s a long time, to be sure. But think about it. Chicago to Tokyo in 13 hours. Simply incredible!

Sitting here, looking out onto the field, I can see planes taking off on the longer of O’Hare’s two east-west runways. The small regional jets leap from a dead standstill and after a short, frantic sprint, jump off of the concrete as if it were too hot to stand any longer and soon disappear into the low clouds. Planes are also taking off on the NE/SW runway a little farther out. There, a 777 rolls slowly along then, seemingly with great effort, lifts off the ground, quickly for something that size, but without the urgency of the little jets. Once airborne, it floats upward in majestic grandeur, showing off its might. If it happens to be a 777ER, its mammoth engines will have just convinced some 775,000 pounds of airplane, passengers and cargo to slip the surly bonds of earth and dance the skies. Simply incredible!

The odd thing is, in spite of appearances, the little jets probably leave the ground at about 130 mph while the “heavies” need to get up to around 180 mph before they can thumb their noses at gravity and take flight. Big or little, it is still an incredible sight to see these machines take off then fade away into the mists above Chicago.

The process by which this happens is well understood. There are some simple explanations which capture the concept, but in actuality one might need to be conversant with the works of Newton*, Navier and Stokes (authors of the familiar Navier-Stokes equations), Euler and Bernoulli to get it just right. As an aerospace engineer by training, I am acquainted (note this is NOT the same as conversant) with the theories. But I prefer to leave the actual application of such esoteric tools to the professionals who design these marvelous machines and stick with a simpler description of the phenomena of heavier-than-air flight. With no offense intended to the aforementioned learned gentlemen, I think it is just pure, simple, awe-inspiring MAGIC!

* This would be his development of the laws of motion. His seminal work with figs came later in his career.

2 comments:

Spiffer said...

I used to love flying. Then right after Vera was born, I developed MAJOR panic attacks even just typing "Orbitz" into a google search. But the trip to NYC went great--the first time in ages I felt relaxed without large doses of tranquilizers. Can't explain it. Maybe the running endorphins? Or maybe hearing Captn "Sully" Sullenberger talk recently about how safe they try to make it. A lot safer than being admitted to a hospital, actually. But I do love the feeling of speeding down the runway to take off. It is worth the hours of panic that might follow.

Anonymous said...

I love that poem by Magee. And flying, whether in my mind, on my bike, roller skates, ice skates, airplane . . . as long as the flying is not down Alpine, hairpin hills!