Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Lesson in Basic Aerodynamic Properties

My Dad drove out from Connecticut to visit this past weekend. It’s been a while since the boys had seen him, so it was great that he could come. It’s not easy living 500 miles away from your family.

I thought it would be nice if we could all go out and do something together, other than letting the boys run wild in the back yard. So I walked into the inner recesses of our closet and pulled out the RC airplane that Leah gave me for Christmas two years ago. What a Norman Rockwell moment I pictured – grandfather, father, and sons standing in a grassy field, watching with innocent fascination the miracle of flight.

It took me only a night to assemble the plane, a B-29 Superfortress. It was mostly extruded foam with a few plastic reinforcement pieces added in for unknown reasons. There were not one, but four separately powered propellers, and I just knew that it would soar gracefully into the air and capture my boys’ imaginations.

Saturday morning, we set off for the small boat harbor – Pop Wilks, me, Leah, Sam, Aidan, Noah & the dog. This was to be a family affair. Leah wanted to go running while we flew the plane, but I guilted her into staying with us to share the wonderful experience.

At the top of the skyway, I knew something was wrong. The usually scenic vistas of Lake Erie were covered with grey mist. When was the last time that there was fog in Buffalo? In May? Ok, this was not the show stopping obstacle I thought it was. You could still see fairly well at water level. We quickly pulled off the highway and headed towards the open field by The Pier.

Everyone jumped out of the car. Pop took the plane and stood at the ready to hand launch, which means that he would throw it into the air once the props reached full speed. I called Sam over and asked him to yell the countdown, “Three, Two, One . . . Contact!”

He pushed the lever forward all the way. The propellers jumped and spun into action, with a noise that could only mean one thing – flight. “Ok, Pop, let her go,” I yelled over the din of the engines. He lofted the plane gracefully into the air. Like thousands of fathers & sons before us, we lifted our eyes skyward to gaze at our accomplishment.

And as our heads tilted upwards, they then followed the plane right back down as it crashed into the bushes. My father laughed. I laughed. Sam was crushed. We raced over to retrieve the downed bomber. Damage report: one tail fin lost in battle. Continued flight operations: not possible.

Or were they?

With the strategic application of a few pieces of packing tape that we luckily found in the car, we grafted the tail fin to the fuselage again. Flight Pre-check to continue as originally planned.

We realized what our initial mistake was. The torque from four engines pulled the plane over to the left, causing the lift from the propellers to actually cause the crash. I would compensate for this on the next flight.

We prepared diligently. Things were getting serious now. Sam stood by my side, a worried look on his face. “Three, Two, One . . Contact!” Up, up up rose the plane. Up, up, up went our eyes. It leveled off at 20 feet. That wasn’t right. It started to nose dive. That wasn’t right either. Eject, Eject, Eject!!

Down went the plane into the bushes. Crash #2. Cockpit crushed. No survivors. Flight operations again in jeopardy.

Or were they?

Upon further examination, no structural damage was incurred. Reviews of flight information concluded with the general opinion that the lift capacity of the engines was not exceeding the weight of the aircraft. It was just too damn heavy.

Recommended solution: Let’s cut off the nose cone. Flight operations to continue as originally planned. As I brought out my knife, Sam watched in horror as I broke my toy on purpose. You do not break toys.

“Three, Two, One . . . Contact!” Skyward Ho! But No! Not as quickly as the last time, our aircraft dropped out of the sky. Damage Report: Forward section of fuselage separated from main. Serious structural damage. Alignment of propellers in question. Continued Flight Operations: Impossible

Or was it?

Upon further consultation, it was agreed that the crash occurred due to the continued problem of excessive weight. It was recommend to leave the fuselage piece behind and to continue Flight Operations. “Three, Two, One . . . Contact!”

We were all apprehensive now, as the rather extensive modifications to the plane now made it look like nothing close to air-worthy. But it flew! It really flew! For at least 15 seconds, our mutation of an airplane glided through the air like a swan!

Then I crashed it into a telephone pole.

Damage Report: Entire rear section of fuselage behind wings separated from main section. Continued Flight Operations: Not recommended for safety’s sake.

Never Say Die.

We patched her together one more time, hoping to build on our previous success. Man that packing tape is great stuff. Sam could not even bear to watch. “Three, Two, One . . . Contact”

Quickly, she gained altitude. Then, just as quickly, she nose-dived back to earth. Damage Report: Three of four propellers smashed into oblivion. Continued Flight Operations: Just try it, meatheads.

In the end, we had just a fleeting glimpse of my lofty goal of flight. The pieces of my airplane were packed into the car, along with the rest of the family, and we sped off to Grandma & Gina’s for the annual Party. Sam was pensive as he sat in the back seat, looking at the boats in the marina. Out of nowhere came, “Daddy, you and Pop did a great job of flying that airplane. Can we fly it again tomorrow?” Norman Rockwell eat your heart out.