Thomas Baldwin's Airopaidia (1786) includes the earliest sketches of the earth from a balloon.
- In the 1780s, as humanity mastered flight, a "balloon craze" swept across the world.
- Thomas Baldwin had just one sky-trip, but he wrote an entire book about it — Airopaidia.
- At times lyrical and technical, the curious volume also includes the world's first aerial maps.
An exact Representation of Mr. Lunardi's New Balloon, as it ascended with Himself – 13 May 1785.Credit: Public Domain Review / Public domain
On 8 September 1785, Thomas Baldwin saw something nobody had ever seen before: the English city of Chester and its surroundings from above. And then he did something nobody had ever done before: he produced maps of what he saw — the very first aerial maps in history. They're included in Airopaidia, a curious book that devotes hundreds of pages to Baldwin's one and only balloon trip.
People have been flying planes for 117 years. But the history of human flight goes back another 120 years before the Wright Brothers' first airplane ride at Kitty Hawk. On 21 November 1783, a balloon manufactured by the Montgolfier brothers took off near Paris, transporting two passengers 5.5 miles through the air in 25 minutes.
Almost immediately, the first manned flight set off a "balloon craze" throughout Europe. Balloonists travelled from city to city, attracting large crowds with their "flying circuses" (hence, the term well-known to Monty Python fans). The novel apparitions caused some to faint, others to vomit. Destruction and rioting were not uncommon.
Certainly spectacular, ballooning itself was not without danger. Pilâtre de Rozier, one of the two passengers on the first montgolfière, died in June 1785 while attempting to cross the English Channel, when his balloon caught fire.
Lamenting the "balloonomania" of his day, novelist Horace Walpole complained that "all our views are directed to the air; balloons occupy senators, philosophers, ladies, everybody." He hoped that these "new mechanic meteors" would not be "converted into new engines of destruction to the human race, as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in science."
The first British balloonist was a remarkable Scotsman named James Tytler, who on 27 August 1784 managed a 10-minute flight in a hot air balloon just outside Edinburgh.
A jack of all trades, Tytler was also a pharmacist, surgeon, printer, poet, pamphleteer, and editor of the second edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Less tastefully, he was the anonymous author of Ranger's Impartial List of the Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh, a review of 66 of the city's prostitutes.
Tytler's ballooning exploits fizzled out, and he was soon overshadowed by the flamboyant Vincenzo Lunardi, the "Daredevil Aeronaut."
The Daredevil Aeronaut
On 15 September 1784 — hardly a month after Tytler — Lunardi took off from the Artillery Ground in Finsbury on the first balloon flight in England. In attendance were the Prince of Wales and 200,000 other Londoners.
Lunardi was accompanied by a dog, cat, and caged pigeon. Flying north, he briefly touched down at Welham Green in a place still called "Balloon Corner." There, he released the cat, as he thought it had become unwell from the cold. Minus the feline, Lunardi took off again. England's first manned flight came to an end in a field near Standon Green End, 24 miles north of Finsbury. A memorial stone still marks the spot.
The next year, Lunardi toured England and Scotland with his Grand Air Balloon, drawing large crowds everywhere. Many of his flights were spectacular but not all were a success. On one of his Scottish flights, he drifted off over the North Sea and crashed into the waves. He was only rescued thanks to a passing fishing boat.
On 8 September, Lunardi's flying circus arrived in Chester, and here, Thomas Baldwin enters the play. Baldwin was a local clergyman's son and sometime curate himself. He was more interested in science than religion, though, and had lately gone completely balloon-crazy. In December of the previous year, he had proposed building a "Grand Naval Air-balloon," complete with sails, oars, and a rudder. Nothing came of it.
Nevertheless, Baldwin had a healthy belief in his own relevance for the ballooning industry. He in fact contended, at one point, that French balloonists had stolen his ideas and that "montgolfières," as hot-air balloons were then called, should rightly be known as "baldwins."
Before his take-off in Chester, Lunardi burned himself on the acid used to make the hydrogen for the balloon. Because of his injury, he couldn't make the ascent himself, so he agreed to rent out his Grand Air Balloon to Baldwin instead. And with that unbelievable stroke of luck, Baldwin lifted off from Chester Castle at 1:40 pm on 8 September 1785, for his first (and only) trip between the clouds. The new-fangled aeronaut certainly came well equipped. Baldwin brought tools for writing and sketching, a speaking trumpet, half a mile of twine, a hardboard map (which could also serve as a table), and — as apparently was de rigueur among balloonists — a pigeon.
Once aloft, Baldwin conducted several experiments. He used inflated bladders to get a sense of differences in air pressure, and he sampled various foods to find out whether they would taste differently high up in the air. (They did not, despite testimonials to the contrary reported from "the Peak of Tenerife" in Spain.)
Toward the end of his journey, Baldwin was forced to climb up on the rigging of the balloon to fix a stuck valve to release gas so he could descend. The balloon eventually came down at Belleair Farm in Rixton, 25 miles northeast of Chester, seven minutes shy of 4 pm.
A view from the balloon at its greatest elevation. In the center, the city of Chester in Cheshire.Credit: Internet Archive / Public domain.
After barely two hours in the air, Baldwin is a man transformed. He sets down his experiences in Airopaidia, which is published the next year. Filling out 362 pages, it's as much a gushing eyewitness report as it is a detailed scientific account of his trip — plus advice to future "aeronauts."
Much to his chagrin, not much has been made of Baldwin's contributions to ballooning. Yet this one-shot amateur did produce a few firsts.
The first true aerial maps
He appears to have been the first to observe the "pilot's glory," a halo that appears around the shadow of a person's head. This is the result of sunlight refracting on tiny water droplets in the atmosphere.
He was also the first to map out what he saw from a balloon. Bird's eye perspectives were nothing new in cartography. Mapmakers often represented cities from elevated perspectives in order to better show the layout of streets, for example. Leonardo da Vinci even pioneered the "satellite view," drawing a plan of the city of Imola in 1502 as if from straight above.
These, however, were works of the imagination. Baldwin's maps were the first aerial maps made from actual observation. And here, the maps say more than a thousand words could. Lunardi, when he observed London from above, had to admit: "I can find no simile to convey an idea of it."
A balloon prospect from above the clouds, showing cities, rivers, fields, and coastline.Credit: Internet Archive / Public domain.
Baldwin included three maps, two of which were colored, in Airopaidia:
- A circular view of Chester, as observed from the balloon's greatest elevation.
- A "Specimen of Balloon Geography," showing the area between Chester and Warrington from above the clouds.
- The balloon over Helsby-Hill in Cheshire.
Baldwin even gave his readers specific instructions on how to enjoy his maps to the fullest: roll up a piece of paper and peer over them as if through a telescope. For Baldwin and his fellow balloonists, flight among the clouds represented the height — quite literally — of the "Sublime," a Romantic notion that married the esthetic to the ecstatic.
As he related on pp. 37-38 of Airopaidia:
But what Scenes of Grandeur and Beauty!
A Tear of pure Delight flaſhed in his Eye! Of pure and exquiſite Delight and Rapture; to look down on the unexpected Change already wrought in the Works of Art and Nature, contracted to a Span by the NEW PERSPECTIVE, diminiſhed almoſt beyond the Bounds of Credibility.
Yet ſo far were the Objects from loſing their Beauty, that EACH WAS BROUGHT UP in a new Manner to the Eye, and diſtinguiſhed by a Strength of Colouring, a Neatneſs and Elegance of Boundary, above Descriptions charming!
The endleſs Variety of Objects, minute, distinct and ſeparate, tho' apparently on the ſame Plain or Level, at once ſtriking the Eye without a Change of its Position, aſtoniſhed and enchanted. Their Beauty was unparalleled. The Imagination itſelf was more than gratified; it was overwhelmed.
The gay Scene was Fairy-Land, and Cheſter Lilliput.
He tried his Voice and ſhouted for Joy. His Voice was unknown to himſelf, ſhrill and feeble. There was no Echo.
A popped balloon
Toward the end of the decade, the ballooning craze died down. Following a deadly accident involving an onlooker in 1786, Lunardi left Britain for Italy, Spain, and Portugal. At the mercy of the winds, balloons lacked any obvious practical application, military or otherwise. And with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, Europe had enough to occupy its attention for the next quarter century. According to one compiler, by 1836, no more than 313 people had taken to the skies in England.
By then, the flying circuses were things of the past. Baldwin died in 1804, never having flown again. But the excitement of those days still gushes from his Airopaidia, and the maps it contains remain a unique milestone in the history of ballooning — and cartography.
A map showing the route of Baldwin's flight, from Chester Castle (circled, bottom) to Rixton Moss (circled, top).Credit: Internet Archive / Public domain.
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Can passenger airships make a triumphantly 'green' comeback?
Large airships were too sensitive to wind gusts and too sluggish to win against aeroplanes. But today, they have a chance to make a spectacular return.
This trend brings with it the unique opportunity for the much more environmentally-friendly passenger airships to make a triumphant comeback. Much like they did 100 years ago, today's airships move with the help of propeller-type turbines powered by petrol or diesel engines. However, they emit considerably less CO2 than jet engines. On shorter distances, their speed, on average nine times lower than passenger jets, does not make that much of a difference. Especially since an airship can pick up passengers even in the centre of a metropolis.
Working on refining such a solution is the British company Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), founded in 2007. For the past decade, its engineers have been fine-tuning the Airlander 10 project. Standing behind the name is a 92-metres-long vehicle that combines the benefits of an aeroplane and helicopter. It can land and take off from practically any location, take 14 tons of cargo or 60 passengers on board, and then fly at a speed of 140 kilometres per hour for up to five days without having to land. In September 2019 in London, HAV representatives signed a contract with the US company Vertex Aerospace LLC, thereby opening up the possibility of supplying Airlander 10 to the US Department of Defense. Soon after that, the management of HAV announced it was launching preparations for the development of a passenger model powered by electric engines. It is indeed this type of drive unit that could ultimately tip the scales and let these huge machines, the development of which was halted by aeroplanes 100 years ago, take to the skies once more.
A balloon with an engine
The balloon designed and built by Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier never became a useful flying machine due to one fundamental drawback: the direction that it flew in was defined by the blowing wind. For several decades since the summer of 1783, when the brothers held a demonstration of their invention for King Louis XVI by sending a lamb, rooster and duck flying in the air, designers were not be able to overcome this challenge. Granted, there were designs of balloons equipped with sails or even propellers, yet the secret to success lay in a proper drive unit.
French designer Henri Jules Giffard was the first to recognize this. He managed to build a steam engine weighing a little over 100 kilograms that could be installed in the balloon's gondola. He attached his structure to a cigar-shaped balloon 44 metres in length and filled it with hydrogen. Then he loaded 150 kilograms of coke into the gondola and, on 24th September 1852, set out from Paris to Trappes. The flight proceeded in the direction chosen by Giffard, as the French inventor equipped the vehicle with a triangular sail serving the function of a rudder. Yet the flying giant proved to be helpless in the face of slightly stronger gusts of wind. And once again, the problem lay in the drive unit; to be able to squeeze additional power out of a steam engine, it had to be enlarged. That, in turn, meant that the balloon needed to be bigger to be able to lift the heavier load into the sky. But then the vessel would become even less controllable and vulnerable to the wind.
Numerous designers attempted to improve Giffard's masterpiece. An airship designed by two captains of the French Army, Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs, looked very promising. The propeller that pushed the vehicle forward was powered by an 8.5 horsepower electric engine, eight times more powerful than Giffard's steam engine. Thanks to the new drive unit, on 9th August 1884, La France was able to fly eight kilometres in 20 minutes, turn back and return to the place it started from, in spite of the wind. However, Krebs and Renard were not able to manage the issues created by lead acid batteries, as they were too heavy, inefficient and required constant recharging.
The flying count
While French inventors were walking in circles, the Germans set off to conquer the heavens. At the end of the 19th century, Germany was producing the most sophisticated combustion engines in the world. The small yet powerful 28 horsepower engines from the Daimler factory caught the attention of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. In 1890, with his 50th birthday on his heels, General von Zeppelin decided to end his military career and engage in the construction of flying machines, thereby fulfilling the dreams of his youth. He caught the aeronautics bug in the US during the Civil War, when he flew in a balloon high above the battle fields as the envoy of the King of Württemberg. 25 years later, he started work on the construction of an innovative airship along with engineer Theodor Kobert. They drew inspiration from the ideas of Hungarian engineer David Schwartz, who had patented the design of an aerostat based on a stiff frame covered with a cotton or aluminium shell, which in turn concealed soft balloons filled with hydrogen.
The fulfilment of his dream proved to be a costly venture, and after eight years of struggling, Von Zeppelin founded the Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Luftschiffahrt in Stuttgart in 1898. In July 1900, on the coast of Lake Constance, he was able to present to shareholders and onlookers his enormous flying machine, the Luftschiff Zeppelin (LZ 1). The cigar-shaped creation, which was 128 metres in length, majestically glided across the sky around 300 metres above the waters of the lake thanks to two Daimler engines. Following that success, and thanks to public fundraisers and lotteries, Von Zeppelin managed to collect 250,000 marks to build yet another airship, abbreviated the LZ 2. The count was expecting that the German army would buy it for 1.5 million marks, but the price proved to be prohibitively high. The army was initially not interested in the LZ 3 model either, although it made 45 flights safely, covering an air distance of 4000 kilometres.
A breakthrough did not come until the matter of the high-profile catastrophe of the LZ 4 airship appeared. The count had turned the LZ 4 into a near masterpiece. The 136-metre-long cigar-shaped vehicle was divided into 17 chambers filled with hydrogen, and attached beneath it was a gondola for the pilots and mechanics, as well as a second luxury passenger gondola. Even King Wilhelm II of Württemberg, who had been persuaded to try the airship out in July of 1908, had no complaints about its level of comfort. After the marketing success, Count Zeppelin announced that his vehicle would make a 24-hour flight without landing, hoping to convince the head of the German army that airships were the perfect solution for attacking the deep hinterland of the enemy. However, on 5th August 1908, a storm forced the LZ 4 pilot Hugon Eckener to land near the city of Echterdingen. There, a gust of the storm wind snapped the airship's tether and threw it to the ground; the hydrogen exploded and the machine burned to ashes.
That loss pushed Count Zeppelin's company to the brink of bankruptcy. When the news became widespread, the Germans spontaneously organized a fundraiser for the engineer, whom they were proud of. Soon, he received a sum of over six million marks. This capital allowed Zeppelin to found Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH, a company that, in line with its name (Luftschiffbau means 'airship engineering'), specialized in the construction of airships. Financial aid was also promised by the Minister of War Karl von Einem, who was increasingly more interested in the combat potential of the flying machines.
Civil and bomber
The mass participation of regular Germans in the fundraiser gave Von Zeppelin the idea that his airships could compete with train travel. In November 1909, he surprised the world by founding the Deutsche Luftschiffahrts Aktiengesellschaft (DELAG) passenger airline. DELAG transported the first 20,000 passengers for free, thereby promoting the trend for air travel, and after that he offered tickets for 200 marks. The amount was equivalent to average monthly wages in Germany at the time; nonethless, its flights were becoming more and more popular. On board the 12 DELAG airships, servicing routes connecting the 10 largest cities of the German Empire, you could travel in the company of aristocrats, politicians, millionaires, generals, or even members of the Imperial Family. In 1914, the airline proudly announced that it had transported 34,000 passengers, and that not one of them died during the flights. Users of highly unreliable aeroplanes could only dream of such statistics at the time.
So when World War I broke out, as the late Walter J. Boyne wrote in his book The Influence of Air Power Upon History, "Germany was so convinced of the potential of dirigibles [...] that it allowed the Army and the Navy to develop their own airship fleets [...]." Ferdinand von Zeppelin, now nearing 80 years of age, was at the height of his fame, while his factories were working at full capacity. Right after the airships, commonly referred to as Zeppelins, appeared over the front lines in France and Great Britain, they raised alarm. In September 1914, in an attempt to anticipate any actions of the enemy, the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill planned a series of attacks of British bombers on airship bases in Cologne and Düsseldorf, and on an airship manufacturing plant in Friedrichshafen. Despite the great dedication of the airmen, the action brought little effect, as only one Zeppelin burned down on the ground when it was hit by a bomb. Yet the expected retaliation attacks did not take place right away. "At a joint meeting September 1914, representatives of the Army and Navy decided that there were as yet too few airships to bomb England, and further, that they were inhibited by Kaiser Wilhelm's reluctance to bomb the homes of many of his royal relatives," Boyne explains. It wasn't until Germany realized enormous losses on the front that the monarch changed his mind.
"The first attack took place on January 19-20, 1915, with two out of three Zeppelins – L 3 and L 4 – successfully reaching England," Boyne describes. L 3 dropped over a dozen 50-kilogram bombs on Great Yarmouth, while L 4, led by Captain Magnus von Platen-Hallermund, nearly gave the German Emperor a heart attack. Its bombs fell onto Sandringham House, where the cousin of Wilhelm II, the British King George V, happened to be staying at the time. Luckily nothing happened to him, but the public were shocked by the fact that for the first time in 800 years, since the times of William the Conqueror, an enemy from the continent had launched a direct attack on the monarchs of England.
At first, the airships operated over the island with complete impunity. Rifle bullets shot from the ground were not able to pierce the duralumin sheeting of the vessels' hulls. In addition, Zeppelins flew at higher altitudes than fighter planes and were able to climb up more quickly, in spite of their large dimensions. For the first time ever in history, Lieutenant Reginald Warneford managed to shoot down the L 37 airship, but this was only after he flew above it in a plane and dropped six bombs from the top. Therefore, the Germans used them even more boldly. "All the fears seemed to be realised on the night of October 13-14 , when five Zeppelins slashed across England, dropping almost two hundred bombs and killing seventy-one people and injuring another 128," Boyne reports.
The blind path of evolution
"Looking up the clear run of New Bridge Street and Farringdon Road I saw high in the sky a concentrated blaze of searchlights, and in its centre a ruddy glow which rapidly spread into the outline of a blazing airship. Then the search lights were turned off and the Zeppelin drifted perpendicularly in the darkened sky, a gigantic pyramid of flames, red and orange, like a ruined star falling slowly to earth," are the words reporter Michael MacDonagh noted in his journal entry dated 1st October 1916. "It was so horribly fascinating that I felt spellbound – almost suffocated with emotion, ready hysterically to laugh or cry. When at last the doomed airship vanished from sight there arose a shout the like of which I never heard in London before – a hoarse shout of mingled execration, triumph and joy; a swelling shout that appeared to be rising from all parts of the metropolis, ever increasing in force and intensity," he added. A month earlier, right after midnight on 3rd September 1916, London experienced the 'Night of the Zeppelins', when as many as 16 dark cigars hovered over the British capital, each 200-metres long and each dropping bombs to the ground. They seemed to be mighty and impregnable, yet as a result of the wartime arms race, planes and anti-aircraft artillery was being perfected at an amazing pace. A few months down the line, all you needed to take down an airship was an accurately launched machine gun series with ammunition designed to puncture the aluminium shell, or a few artillery shells. When British fighter planes shot down 17 Zeppelins in 1917, the Germans backed out of the London bombings.
The bombs dropped by the airships killed 557 British subjects and caused material damage amounting to $7.5 million. Yet the construction of 17 Zeppelins cost $8.3 million, and over 300 crew members were lost. From a military and economic perspective, the balance was disastrous. Nevertheless, in the Versailles Treaty, the triumphant superpowers prohibited the production of airships in the Weimar Republic.
Fortunately, Ferdinand von Zeppelin did not live to see that day, as he had died in 1917. His successor at Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH, Hugo Eckener, initiated long-term lobbying efforts in the US that lasted until 1922, when American President Warren G. Harding stated that it would be an excellent idea for Germany to pay out part of the war reparations due in brand new airships. London and Paris did not protest to this. In the meantime, engineers had developed a new generation of machines. The first LZ 120 series airship 'Bodensee' had the shape of a 120-metre-long 'teardrop', which was able to fly at a speed of 130 kilometres per hour thanks to four Maybach engines with 245 horsepower each. An improved version of the 'Bodensee', the LZ 127 'Graf Zeppelin', was extended to 236 metres. As a result, it allowed engineers to achieve a significant increase in lift, to the point where in 1929, humanity could follow the flight of the 'Graf Zeppelin' around the world with fascination. At the time, the press was all over the topic of its comfortable cabins for 40 passengers, which were even equipped with separate toilets and showers with hot water, a luxurious restaurant and a lounge, indispensable for evening receptions.
But not too long after that, the factories of William E. Boeing in Seattle started to offer to airlines its innovative passenger aeroplane model, the B 247; it was a beautiful twin-engine machine able to fly at speeds of over 300 kilometres per hour. It provided a sound-proof cabin for 10 passengers with the possibility of controlling the temperature. But it didn't outbid the offer of luxurious airships just yet; the decisive factor in this new race was... gas. German engineers replaced the flammable hydrogen with the much safer helium. They had to buy it from the Americans though, as only they had the technology available to produce helium on an industrial level. When Hitler came to power in Germany, fears were increasingly expressed across the Atlantic that a fleet of combat airships could launch an unexpected attack on American cities and ports. To the great joy of Boeing, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced an embargo on the export of helium to the Third Reich. So Zeppelins would once again be filled with hydrogen. The explosion of hydrogen during a landing at the airport in Lakehurst (New Jersey) on 6th May 1937 destroyed the LZ 129 'Hindenburg'. The catastrophe, in which 35 people were burned alive, resounded to the point that potential air travel buffs lost all trust in airships. It wasn't such a great sacrifice for them though, as only a few months after the 'Hindenburg' had burned, Boeing offered them the four-engine B 307 'Stratoliner', the first passenger plane with a pressurized cabin that was able to fly at an altitude of nearly 8000m and had a range of 3800 kilometres. Airlines no longer needed the giant cigars. The army used them for third-rate patrol operations at sea and as barriers attached to cables to make it harder for bombers to attack cities.
That's how the age of the airship came to an end, but maybe not an indefinite end. According to the study concept by Hybrid Air Vehicles, the new generation vessels would be powered by electric engines supplied not only by energy from batteries, but also by energy from solar panels. That would allow the vehicle to embark on flights lasting several days continuously, not to mention neutrality for the natural environment. And that advantage can only gain importance in the very near future.
Translated from the Polish by Mark Ordon
The drive would provide enough thrust for a spacecraft to travel near the speed of light using only electricity, says physicist Jim Woodward.
- The thrust system utilizes piezoelectric crystals, which vibrate extremely rapidly when exposed to electric current.
- Early tests have yielded mixed results, but Woodward and his colleagues say a recent breakthrough related to the design of the thruster mount greatly increased thrust.
- Independent teams of scientists will likely test Woodward's design after the pandemic.
From health concerns to funding, there's no shortage of obstacles preventing humans from traveling beyond our solar system. But the main obstacle is propulsion: Our spacecraft are simply too slow and too reliant on fuel to realistically make a voyage to Alpha Centauri, the closest star to our Sun.
So, what do we need? Something like a reactionless drive — an engine that moves a spacecraft without exhausting a finite stock of propellant. So far, such a device only exists in science fiction. But for the past few decades, physicist Jim Woodward has been trying to change that.
The 79-year-old physics professor has developed a thruster design that he hopes will serve as a proof of concept for how humans can someday achieve interstellar travel. Called the Mach-effect gravitational assist (MEGA) drive, the device only requires a source of electricity to achieve thrust.
Early tests have shown mixed results. Woodward himself was only able to demonstrate miniscule amounts of thrust, while other teams reported little to no thrust when trying to replicate his experiments. Still, the design intrigued NASA enough to award Woodward $625,000 in funding between 2017 and 2018.
What's more, in 2019 Woodward and his collaborator and fellow physicist Hal Fearn reported a major breakthrough after redesigning the thruster's mount — a tweak that produced "more than 100 micronewtons, orders of magnitude larger than anything Woodward had ever built before," as a recent feature in Wired notes.
(To be sure, the level of thrust we're talking about is barely enough to visibly move an object across a table. But if the results are confirmed, it would suggest the technology could be scaled up.)
A heterodox view of inertia
Woodward's system is based on ideas that 19th-century physicist Ernst Mach proposed about inertia, which is an object's tendency to stay at rest unless acted upon.
In simple terms, Mach's principle argues that distant matter causes local inertial effects. So, a star in a far away galaxy has some effect on the inertia you encounter when you push a shopping cart. That's the idea, anyway. (Woodward gives a comprehensive breakdown of his views on Mach's principle in this blog post.)
In the 20th century, Albert Einstein incorporated Mach's ideas into his theory of general relativity, essentially arguing that gravity and inertia are fundamentally linked. But the broader physics community later rejected this view of inertia, largely because of a 1961 paper that showed inertia to be unrelated to the gravitational influence of distant matter.
Still, Woodward believes Einstein had it right all along, and that, under this framework of inertia, it's possible to develop propulsion systems that require only an electrical charge, not fuel. The key element of his thruster is a stack of piezoelectric crystals, which produces an alternating electric field when voltage is applied to it, as Woodward explained:
"Piezoelectric crystals are electromechanical devices, which means that when you apply the voltage, they mechanically expand & contract depending upon the sign of the voltage. So by applying a voltage, you're causing an E/c² energy fluctuation in the stack no matter what they do mechanically, and you're also producing an acceleration because of the changing dimensions of the stack due due to electromechanical effects, which also causes the acceleration required couple the device to the large gravitational field."
"The trick is timing the energy fluctuations and mechanical oscillations correctly, which requires using two frequencies — at the first and second harmonics, and it's the second harmonic that actually produces thrust."
Woodward and his colleagues have even drawn up plans for a spacecraft that would utilize the MEGA drive. Called the SSI Lambda, the craft would feature piezoelectric crystals and a small nuclear reactor to produce electricity.
"The SSI Lambda probe using MEGA drive thrusters is a truly propellantless-propulsion spacecraft," the team wrote of the design in its report to NASA. "It can travel at speeds up to the speed of light in a vacuum with only consumption of electric power. No other method for travelling to the stars and braking into the target system has been put forward to date, which also has credible physics to back it up."
After the COVID-19 pandemic settles down, other scientists and engineers hope to put Woodward's designs to the test. The results of those experiments should reveal whether he's onto something. To some experts in the field, the odds are slim. But that doesn't mean it's not worth investigating.
"I'd say there's between a 1-in-10 and 1-in-10,000,000 chance that it's real, and probably toward the higher end of that spectrum," Mike McDonald, an aerospace engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory in Maryland, told Wired. "But imagine that one chance; that would be amazing. That's why we do high-risk, high-reward work. That's why we do science."
Otto Aviation says the hourly cost of flying the new Celera 500L is about six times cheaper than conventional aircraft.
- The unusual shape of Otto Aviation's Celera 500L was designed to maximize laminar flow.
- Laminar flow is the smooth flow of air over an aircraft's wings, and optimizing laminar flow can make aircraft incredibly efficient.
- The plane can hold up to six passengers, and is expected to hit commercial markets around 2025.
An American aviation company claims to have designed an ultra-efficient plane that could someday make the cost of private flights comparable to flying commercial.
Otto Aviation says it's completed 31 successful test flights of its new Celera 500L, a.k.a the "bullet plane." According to the company, the plane features seats for six passengers, a 4,500-nautical-mile range and a top cruise speed of 460 miles per hour. That means it could fly nonstop from New York City to Los Angeles in about the same time as a conventional private aircraft.
But most notable is the low flying cost of $328 per hour. Compare that to the $1,300 to $3,000 hourly cost you and several friends would currently pay to charter a private jet.
How is the price so low?
It's mainly because of the plane's unusual shape. The cylindrical fuselage is especially aerodynamic because it maximizes laminar flow. Laminar flow occurs when air flows smoothly over an aircraft's wings, which reduces drag and boosts fuel efficiency.
Otto says the Celera 500L requires about one-eighth the fuel of a conventional jet.
"The design of the Celera fuselage takes advantage of an optimum length-to-width ratio to maximize laminar flow," Otto Aviation wrote on its website, adding that the design results in a 59-percent reduction in drag compared to similarly sized aircraft. "These benefits will not scale for large jet transports and are therefore well suited for an aircraft like the Celera."
Other specs include:
- Glide range of 125 miles at 30,000 feet, which is roughly three times better than conventional aircraft.
- Fuel efficiency levels that are 30 percent better than FAA and ICAO target emissions standards for aircraft entering service after 2031.
- Liquid-cooled V12 engine, twin 6-cylinder bank, capable of independent operation with mutually independent critical engine sub-systems for each bank.
"We believe the Celera 500L is the biggest thing to happen to both the aviation and travel industries in 50 years," William Otto Sr., the Chairman and Chief Scientist of Otto Aviation, said in a statement. "Beyond using our aircraft for passenger travel, it can also be used for cargo operations and military applications. Since the results from our prototype test flights have been so promising, we're ready to bring the Celera 500L to market."
The company hopes to deliver the Celera 500L to market around 2025, pending FAA certification. If successful, manufacturers like Otto Aviation, Transcend Air, and Airbus could usher in the era of air taxis, where people hail aircraft like they do taxis or Ubers. Paris, for example, was planning to have flying taxis in time for the 2024 Olympic Games, though it's unclear whether the pandemic will affect the project.
As far as how COVID-19 has affected the launch of the bullet plane?
"We didn't anticipate Covid-19," Otto told CNN. "But there are enhanced market opportunities in being able to afford to fly with only those you choose to. Being able to avoid crowded airports and lines is another big benefit. [...] In many cases, individuals and families will be able to charter the Celera 500L at prices comparable to commercial airfares, but with the convenience of private aviation."