Flying Without Airplanes

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Airplanes, of course, aren't the only ways to get aloft, and creative minds are always inventing new ways to defy gravity. One of the stranger flight modes we've seen is the one chosen by John Ninomiya, who gathers a cluster of small helium balloons together, straps himself in, and takes off. To ascend, he drops sand or water ballast; to descend, the balloons are cut away or popped, one by one. "Even after you've done it many times before, there's still something a bit unreal to it," Ninomiya says. "You wonder: Am I really doing this?" He'll be flying the colorful balloons at festivals around the country this summer. Another ancient way to fly that persists around the edges of aviation today is with wings that flap. Ornithopters of various shapes and sizes have managed to get aloft, and even to carry humans, though their uses are limited. Recently, the 10th annual Micro Air Vehicle Competition was held in Utah, where teams from universities around the country flew radio-controlled miniature ornithopters. The tiny aircraft, most with a wingspan less than a foot across, ran various tests of endurance and maneuverability. They could have many practical applications, their builders say, such as detecting toxic gases or spying. Recently, Nathan Chronister brought an ornithopter to Kill Devil Hills and flew it along the path the Wright Brothers first flew. Whether this was any kind of first is unclear, but a nice video of the flight is posted online. Other interesting videos are posted of an X-wing ornithopter in test flight, and an imaginary flight on Mars.