The Solar Impulse is a Swiss aircraft designed to fly without fuel using only batteries and solar energy. Although there have been long distance and human powered airplanes before, this will be the first purely solar powered aircraft. It just completed it’s first real flight using pre-charged batteries so the concept is becoming reality. Someday, aircraft like this one will be able to remain continuously airborne and operated remotely. The age of remotely piloted aircraft is here thanks to advances in electronics. In the future, remotely piloted aircraft, spacecraft, ships, etc. will become the norm I expect as each succeeding generation becomes more comfortable with the technology.
In terms of design, the Solar Impulse has the immense wingspan found on gliders and other long distance aircraft like Burt Rutan’s Voyager. But the rest of the airplane is unique with it’s box-like fuselage section and dramatic vertical over and under rudder. It almost looks more like a spacecraft designed for inter-planetary travel if it weren’t for the scale. For more information about the Solar Impulse, go to www.solarimpulse.com.
In terms of aircraft concepts, there’s always something new happening all the time. The NASA Puffin concept is an electric personal helicopter airplane similar to the Osprey. The Puffin can take off and land vertically, then switch to horizontal flight once airborne. The design is simple and almost elegant but not quite. The engine (motor) fairings and cones look a little too much like hollow tubes while the tail fins could use a little sweep to them – at least on the leading edge. I suppose the open canopy would also take some getting used to given the proxity of the propeller blades and any potential impact.
The Mig-15 looks like what an early jet of the Soviet era should look like. It’s amazingly pure and simple, compact, and memorable with it’s early jet age aesthetic. From the circular front intake to the swept back wings to the bare metal surfaces, this MiG reminds us of an era when jet technology was new and airframe design for jets was rapidly evolving. Small and looking slighty brutish next to the American F-86 Sabre, the MiG-15 is like a caricature of what a black and white TV era jet plane might look like. The structure and the paint or camouflage added to the Soviet “proletariat” look while the F-86 had the look and image of an American movie star.
Military transport aircraft aren’t sexy and sleek but they are impressive due to their sheer bulk, mass, and awesome load carrying capability. It was during this past weekend’s NASCAR race at Dover that I watched a C-17 do a fly and my interest in cargo planes came back. I remember the old C-5 Galaxy which was so huge that it was almost ungainly. Then there’s the tried and true C-130 Hercules – the AK-47 of cargo planes. But watching the C-17 on TV moving through the air, I thought it was time to write a short piece on Creativity is Free. From the gigantic gaping fuselage designed clearly for maximum volume to the broad wings and huge engines, the Globemaster is designed for pure purpose. The canopy windows look tiny in comparison to the plane’s total volume further emphasizing the massive scale of this airlift heavyweight. External pods for landing gear clearly communicate a big and slow feel. It’s interesting too that several science fiction air/spacecraft seem to be inspired by this airplane including the Transformers Cargo Plane below.
With an array of new VLJs (Very Light Jets) like the Cessna Citation Mustang, this Light Sport Aircraft caught my attention due to its unique portability and interior/exterior design sophistication. The ICON A5 is like a cross between jet-ski and float plane. It can be trailered to the lake for launching and takeoff and then stored in a oversized garage. The folding wings remind me of the solar electric sailplane and the interior is sports car like. You can find out more about this unique aircraft at www.iconaircraft.com.
I saw a magazine ad a few months where the cars used as background props really caught my attention. But the moment passed and soon I forgot about the ad and the cars — but not for long. The sleek vintage look of the racing cars in the ad just kept coming back to me so I started googling. The photography looked like it was shot at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. The cars were low and aerodynamic but also looked quite aged and raw. The cars were Bonneville Belly Tank Lakesters. A curious genre of top speed record runners, these cars are fashioned out of surplus aircraft fuel tanks. The salt flat racers are built bare bones for pure speed. The look is minimalist, authentic and the patina is practically peeling off their hulls. To see more about these cars – check out Bobby Green’s Blog, he built cars in the above video. You can also read about the Hilfiger connection at this New York Times story. To see the more about the ad campaign and more Bonneville/Belly Tank racing history, visit the Tommy Hilfiger site which has a great collection of still images and information from the shoot.
I’ve always had a love for airplanes so here is the start of my favorites collection. This is the Piaggio P.180 Avanti from Italy. It’s a pusher prop design with 3 lifting surfaces including forward canards. The design offers near jet performance with turboprop efficiency – it’s also the world’s fastest turboprop business aircraft. The usual ‘flying tube’ aircraft body has been replaced with an unconventional, non-cylindrical, low drag fuselage giving the airplane a catfish-like appearance. Unlike the equally attractive composite Beech Starstip, the Avanti is fabricated from more conventional aluminum. Even on the ground, this airplane has a beautifully fluid appearance. And when the recent Miami Vice movie needed a stylish airplane – it was the Avanti that the drug lords traveled in! The airplane also has a very distinctive sound. Last summer, I heard a loud airplane overhead that sounded different – more of a ‘barking’ in the noise. I looked up and it was an Avanti cruising overhead. I later learned that the pusher prop design lends itself to this unique sound – not surprising given an airplane that is unique in so many ways. If you live in the Michigan area, Flagship Private Air operates a P.180 out of Ann Arbor. So if you are looking to fly in this amazing airplane, here is your chance!
We’ve seen electric cars, trains and bikes – but how about an airplane? This was my Master’s thesis project from 1993. Yes, even 15 years ago, people were thinking about the environment! It’s an electric solar powered sailplane/glider for 2 passengers. All the wings and the main lower fin fold up for easy storage for ground transportation too. The propellor turns about the fuselage and the landing gear is retractable.
And what is it about a sailplane or a sailboat that inspires? It’s the direct connection that a pilot can have with the air he’s flying through. The only sound you hear is the sound of the wind. You don’t have to even look at the airspeed indicator when you can just listen to the rush of the wind over the canopy. You stall when there’s silence! A thermal rise of warmer air can be felt through the shuddering wings and fuselage letting you instinctively react with the purely mechanical controls. It’s a great feeling!