A Bar Bet You Can Win… And A Little Atmospheric Science

Stuck in an airplane for five hours a few days ago, I pondered the world just outside the window. Earthlings are fragile flowers. You think space travel is harsh? We can’t even survive at 38,000 feet!

I took a look at some early morning readings from LAX. At 38,000 feet (my flight’s cruising altitude) the temperature was around -45° Celsius, or -49° Fahrenheit.

Please, don’t ask for the wind chill reading. Least it to say, survival is short at those temperatures.

Just as important, maybe more, at that altitude the atmosphere is approximately 20% as dense as it is on the ground. Each breath of outside air would only provide a fifth as much oxygen as we usually get. That short supply would quickly lead to hypoxia, then death, which is why flight attendants show oxygen masks before every takeoff!

Obviously something must be done to make the airplane livable.

My plane’s engines were providing thrust and powering compressors to pack more outside air into a smaller space. What was piped into the cabin was more to our body’s liking. Most planes don’t pressurize the air to sea level pressure, but they get reasonably close and they mix outside air with recycled and filtered cabin air.


OK, you’ve gotten this far. I might as well give you a gift… a bar bet you can win!

If it’s -49° outside the plane you would think the air has to be heated before it gets into the cabin. Nope! The air in an airplane is actually run through an air conditioner to cool it!

Through a couple of laws of thermodynamics (which I had to learn, but you don’t) pressurizing air heats it. The airplane’s compressed air is hot enough it actually needs to be chilled before it’s blasted through the vents.

So, the answer to: If it’s -49° outside your airplane, do they need a heater or air conditioner, is air conditioner!

It is customary to rip the meteorologist 10% for any bets won, but this one’s on the house.

Bored At 40,000 Feet


I was flying home yesterday and I was bored. I reached for my tablet and started playing around with a function I seldom use while home, GPS. With the Global Positioning System my tablet figures out where I am by measuring how long signals from a constellation of Earth orbiting satellites take to reach it.

This is mind boggling math done instantaneously. I’ll spare you the details. Just say it’s magic! That works for me.

Surprisingly, after a few minutes the tablet locked on and started reporting the plane’s position and speed.

Screenshot_2013-10-06-19-06-38-w1200-h1200We were flying over Imperial, Nebraska. Our track was 257&#176, a little south of west. The ground speed was 484 mph. Our altitude was 41,110 feet.

Uh oh. That couldn’t be right. The pilot said we were assigned 40,000 feet. Flying 1,110 feet higher could cause problems.

I checked the FAA’s records this morning. They agree with the pilot, 40,000 feet. Could my GPS have been that wrong?

Truth is we were probably closer to 41,110 feet than 40,000 feet. But it doesn’t matter because the altitude the pilot gives is hardly ever correct!

Here’s where weather enters in.

Years ago before fancy electronics and satellites, pilots needed a way to know how high they were flying. The simple answer was to measure atmospheric pressure. We already had an instrument for that, a barometer.

As you climb higher the atmosphere become less dense. The barometric pressure gets lower. Calibrate the barometer to measure this pressure fall in feet and you’ve got an altimeter. There’s one (or more) on every plane.

Of course it’s never that simple. The barometric pressure over any spot on Earth is constantly changing. The barometric pressure between any two points also varies. If pilots set their altimeters at different airports they’d constantly be at different altitudes. The skies above us would be chaotic!

A plan was devised. Once a plane is airborne and above 18,000 feet the barometer reading is reset to 29.92″, no matter what the ‘real’ pressure is. Once my plane was set to this ‘standard,’ its 40,000 foot reading matched all the other planes claiming 40,000 feet.

Disaster averted, even though none of them were actually at 40,000 feet.

This system works beautifully for high altitude jets in flight–not so well near the ground. Planes taking off and landing reset their altimeters to the actual pressure at the airport so they know exactly where the runway is.

This system has been in use for decades and continues today in spite of technological advances, because it works!

Very Tiring Day

We are home.

Doppler, Helaine and I are on individual sofas. Each has a blanket or two. Two of us are prone.

No pity party. This is self imposed. It’s been a very long day.

2:45 am to sleep. Helaine’s alarm at 5:45a.

By 9:30a we had dropped off Stef, ditched the rental car (world’s bluest Dodge), and boarded our plane.

There is one non-stop to Hartford. It leaves early. She had middle seat down. I took middle seat back.

As we were walking through Bradley, Helaine noted how long it had been since we’d landed during daylight hours? Maybe never.

Luggage quick. Roncari, quick, efficient.

God, I loved the HOV lane this afternoon. We zipped down I-91 while the single riders stopped and went.

I am tired. We are tired. Even Doppler is tired.

We had a few days without thinking about the move. Now we begin the push. Under two weeks to go.

I’m Giving You The Last Boarding Pass


We’re on our way to snowy Baltimore, routed from snowy Milwaukee to snowy Connecticut as if we were packages! In the Southwest tradition our plane is hopscotching from coast-to-coast–SEA-MKE-BWI-BUF.

Because Helaine knew we’d be busy today she bought ‘Earlybird Check-In’ for me. Seats on Southwest are first come, first served. Earlybird puts you closer to the front of the line.

We’ve done this before. I get on the plane, then save her a seat.

Because of traffic we got to the airport around 40 minutes before takeoff. Helaine went to check-in, but was told she wouldn’t get a boarding number. She was in the final 15!

I’d never heard about special treatment for the final 15 before. It couldn’t be good!

We went through security, then stood in line at the gate where an agent was already seeking volunteers to be bumped.

Helaine reached the front of the line, handed over her drivers license and was told, “I’m giving you the last boarding pass.”

That’s skin-of-the-teeth! On this 137 seat plane, Helaine was issued boarding pass C-37, the 137th.

deicing-at-MKEOur plane left the gate and taxied across the field. We were getting sprayed with deicer. Even in Milwaukee’s light snow, the potential for ice formation is taken seriously. This is the kind of delay you never should complain about.

Meanwhile, we’d brought Stef to the airport too. She’s got a few hours to wait until her non-stop to LAX departs.

This was actually my second round-trip to MKE today. I took my parents earlier this afternoon for their flight to Florida.

Melissa-and-her-GrandmaThe day started at my sister and brother-in-law’s house. They threw an informal brunch for the out-of-town guests, featuring one more appearance by Mark and Melissa, last night’s bride and groom.

Helaine and I won’t be home much before 1:00 AM. Our BWI-BDL flight has been delayed.

Flying is a great convenience, making this quick wedding trip do-able. It’s still a royal pain in-the-ass. Is anyone happily a road warrior anymore?

From The Guy In 7F

I am in an aluminum tube around 38,000 feet above the whitened ground of Eastern Iowa. As forecast it’s been bumpy on-and-off til now. Nothing horrible, but discomforting nonetheless.

The pilot has asked the flight attendants to sit twice already. That kind of bumpy.

I went through security at the same time as our pilot. When I asked him if turbulence was still expected he said he hadn’t checked the weather yet. That’s why I’m here, right?

We’re on a rarity for Connecticut. We’ll get to our destination without a change planes, though we will be stopping at Denver International for an hour or so.

I am covered in a tiger stripe travel blanket. Helaine hoped it wouldn’t shed. Me too.

53&#176 at the moment at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana. That temperature is comparable to Connecticut today… but with sun… and three extra hours of it.

The Bag That Almost Got Away

We’re at Terminal A, Bradley Airport. Our flight is an hour away. We’re very excited about the Alaskan cruise we board tomorrow.

Getting to this point has been interesting to say the least!

My tablet was in the shop for repairs. No problem. It was due back today and actually made it to my house around 9:30 AM.

I didn’t hear the doorbell!

When Helaine opened the front door an hour later there was a tag saying it would be redelivered Monday. We’ll be in Juneau, Alaska Monday!

I’m going to be a little light on details because rules were bent, but thanks to some well placed Facebook friends my now fully charged tablet is in my bag. Someone contacted the driver who doubled back and walked it up our driveway.

I won’t lie. I’m sure this delivery happened because I’m the guy on TV. It’s something I take advantage of as infrequently as possible. I’ve tried my best to make sure all parties involved understand my gratitude. I am VERY grateful.

Unfortunately the pre-trip stories don’t end there!

As we were in the car getting ready to drive off Helaine looked at me. “I don’t remember packing your shaver,” she said.

I didn’t look upon that as tragedy. Does anyone enjoy shaving? We’re going to Alaska. I could grow my beard like the natives.

I opened the garage and headed back inside. As it turns out my shaver wasn’t in the bathroom. It must be packed.

However, as I headed back to the stairs I noticed our soft sided “suiter” sitting there! Somehow we forgot it.

Is this a critical piece of luggage? Hell yeah! Everything that hangs (and that includes the coats we took for the Alaskan chill) is in that bag. Once we were at the airport there wouldn’t have been time to go back and get it.

Close call! Too close!

Seattle is far away. From Bradley it’s also inconvenient. We’re flying via Las Vegas. We don’t land until nearly 3:00 AM EDT.

Back Home In Connecticut

I believe I can be arrested for the photo at the top of this entry, snapped as we climbed out out from DCA. It was too good a photo not to take. The White House is hidden just under the wing, but the Capitol, Washington Monument, Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, Mall, Ellipse and most everything else you can think of for Washington is visible!

I am home. My mom is now in rehab. My dad is supervising my mother’s care.

I usually kvetch about travel days. Not today.

Because of my mom’s condition the reservation wasn’t made until late yesterday. Helaine booked USAirway’s noon flight from West Palm Beach to Washington National then a second flight to Bradley.

Spoiler alert: Everything was on-time!

I fell asleep as we rolled down the runway, woke up 45 minutes later and read Rachel Maddow’s “Drift” until Sully asked me (and everyone else) to turn off my electronic gear. People reading actual books should be compelled to close them too. It’s only fair.

I was in the window seat, 13F. The guy in 13D was reading a book on a tablet too!

We flew the IRONS4 arrival to DCA. This is a standard approach to Runway 4. My right side window was going to have good views today.

It’s a straight shot from Richmond to National flying over the spectacular Virginia countryside. From time-to-time we also flew over interesting off-the-road parcels with huge satellite dishes and radomes. I suspect these are not facilities you can drive up to just to take a peek.

Arrival spectacular, but uneventful.

As I was checking my connecting gate a woman fifteen feet away tripped and fell to the floor. I ran over and helped her to her feet. Still a Boy Scout.

I needed to take the bus connecting the terminals at DCA . As I was walking to the curb the woman ahead of me tripped and fell to the pavement. I helped her up too. I’m a Boy Scout and obviously a bad luck charm!

My second flight was an Embraer 175, an 80 seat jet designed and built in Brazil. Think New York City studio apartment with wings! It does, however, have a huge bathroom for a little plane. Impressive!

I was in my seat kibbitzing with the flight attendant (anyone who doesn’t know how a seatbelt works in 2012 deserves whatever befalls them!) when a voice rang out from the seat behind me.


Helaine tells me I have a distinctive voice. It was certainly distinctive enough for Milford Deputy Police Chief Tracy Mooney to recognize me today!

Once the plane was airborne she asked me to pose for a photo with “Flat Stanley!” There is a story. Don’t ask.

Speaking of photos, I believe I can be arrested for the photo at the top of this entry, snapped as we climbed out out from DCA. It was too good a photo not to take. The White House is hidden just under the wing, but the Capitol, Washington Monument, Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, Mall, Ellipse and most everything else you can think of for Washington is visible!

Anyway, I’m home and back-to-work tomorrow. Glad I went. Glad I’m back.

The Too Good To Be True Tech Story I Almost Aired

There was just something too good to be true about Smeets. How could this be done in such a low key way? Why was there no major press coverage?

No sci/tech story for me today. Rachel was out judging a science fair during the 4:00 PM news and there’s a legal limit to how much Geoff the public will take.

As it turns out that was a good thing. The story I planned to do might be a hoax. At this point I can’t be sure.

It all started yesterday when I saw a link about a Dutchman, Jarno Smeets, who’d flown like a bird!

Right here, on this blog I share everything about my crazy plan to build my own wings. My goal? To fly with it! Something Leonardo DaVinci, my grandfather and I dreamed of for a long time. But this summer I decided to really start building it. This blog is the result of my experiences of the project. You’ll find video’s, pictures and text on the progress, my inspiration and all your comments and support.

Smeets put together his flying machine using wings fashioned from strong, but lightweight wood, kite fabric, two small motors and a digital control system fashioned with accelerometers from a cellphones and a Wii controller! He flaps his arms which then controls his craft’s motorized flapping wings.

I saw the video. Mesmerized! His recent flight followed a year’s worth of preparation videos. That’s a lot of backstory for s hoax. Normally this is enough for me.

I often do stories on tech breakthroughs. There’s no way to be there so I’m dependent on user produced videos. They have proved to be trustworthy.

There was just something too good to be true about Smeets. How could this be done in such a low key way? Why was there no major press coverage?

Overnight I began looking at comments from readers on websites where the video had already been posted. There were skeptics! In fact most of the comments came from skeptics.

Time Magazine ran a story on the flight and tagged it:

Update: Some are questioning the veracity of the video above, and since we obviously haven’t seen the flight firsthand, nor has Smeets yet responde to our request for confirmation the flight was real, we can’t vouch for its authenticity at this time (though we can’t yet call it inauthentic, either).

I sent my producer an email. I’d forgotten I wouldn’t be producing a story today, but I told her I might have to bag today’s package because of my growing doubts.

This afternoon Huffington Post added to the intrigue:

But there’s only one problem–the video is an elaborate hoax. At least that’s the opinion of the University of Toronto’s Dr. Todd Reichert.

“I’m tempted to play along, but unfortunately from a physical perspective it’s completely unrealistic,” Reichert told The Huffington Post in an email. “Given an estimated total weight of 100 kg, a wing area of 9 square meters, maximum lift coefficient of 1.0, and an air density of 1.22 kilograms per cubic meter…the vehicle would have to travel at least 49 kilometers per hour to stay airborne.” – Huffington Post.

This hasn’t played out fully yet. There are still those, including Jamie Hynerman, of “Mythbusters” who think it looks real. Smeets himself doesn’t seem to be speaking.

It just looked too good to be true. Maybe it is! I hope not.

The Scruffy And Fidgety Flier Returns

I saw the largest bag of airplane candy ever. Unless you’re throwing a party on the plane, why? I am a major candy eater and even I went, “Whoa!”

The small white dog and I are on the sofa. We are coasting toward the end of the day.

We live in amazing times! What I did today is a true marvel of modern life. I spent the morning and early afternoon with my folks and was home in time to watch some TV with Helaine.

I flew down Bradley-Baltimore-West Palm Beach. Today John and Alyce drove me south as I returned Ft. Lauderdale-Bradley.

I saw the largest bag of airplane candy ever. Unless you’re throwing a party on the plane, why? I am a major candy eater and even I went, “Whoa!”

M&M’s you are a trailblazer!

I am the scruffy and fidgety flier today. I haven’t shaved since Friday.

I have no idea what the woman on the aisle thought? I just wouldn’t sit still. Luckily, middle seat open.

There was no WiFi. I had no printed entertainment. The only thing around was the airline magazine. That doesn’t take long to complete.

During the last hour of the trip I tried to identify where we were by looking at the darkened ground, identifying landmarks (mainly city lights and roads) and remembering maps. I probably look at maps a little more than you. (Click the map. It’s a 3D view of the flightpath from FlightAware.com)

I watched Long Beach Island, NJ go by though it’s only now I realize that’s what it was. I picked up Sandy Hook then looked up into New York Harbor. Low clouds blocked the skyline. Shame.

We headed to the Long Island shore, Brooklyn then Queens. We flew over the Rockaways then headed toward New Haven. Unusual approach to Bradley for me.

The plane flew north just east of I-91. I looked down at a steep angle to see Hartford as we flew directly over the river. Just past the Bissell Bridge we turned left and landed on Runway 33.

Uneventful. Thank you Sully.

I’m still on vacation until Sunday. Hopefully there will be more to keep me busy.

I will shave tomorrow.

Waiting At Gate 2

We’ll see how I survive the day. I wanted to go to bed early, but have no discipline. A little after 1:00 AM my cellphone rang. It was Helaine upstairs who’d woken up and wondered where I was?

Good morning from BDL. I’ve got an 8:30 AM flight to Baltimore then a second flight to West Palm Beach. I came an hour early. but the gate area is already crowded.

Note to boss: FoxCT’s morning news is playing on the TV here at Gate 2. It’s much too loud.

We’ll see how I survive the day. I wanted to go to bed early, but have no discipline. A little after 1:00 AM my cellphone rang. It was Helaine upstairs who’d woken up and wondered where I was?

The ride to the airport was fine. The only real problem was in the TSA area. They had me remove the two big camera lens from my roll on. The woman in front of me turned my way and asked, “Does this really do anything?”


Even though skies are clear I’ve been watching planes get de-iced. I assume they’ll stop now that the Sun is up.

I assume I’ll stop now that the Sun is up!

The Child Returns

She flew all night. I’ve done that. It’s not real sleep. It’s some weird airline sleep.

My daughter is home. It’s been a very long time. Too long. She was anxious to come east.

She is our West Coast success story. Even if things aren’t always moving smoothly, they’re moving. Isn’t that how life works?

She flew all night. I’ve done that. It’s not real sleep. It’s some weird airline sleep.

She’s sleeping now. The redeye always wins!

As it turns out Stef loves Doppler. Shocker!

I don’t want to set up some conflict with Roxie, but Doppler is extra cute especially when performing her one-woman “Salute to Baby Seals” show.

This is not SoCal. We get winter. Helaine gave Stef a set of onesy feet pajamas! Families understand.

Stef wants to come to the station and bring Doppler (for a cameo). I’ll let you know.

Greeting From Seat 6D

In 21st Century America this is as far off the grid as you get. I can type to my heart’s content, but there’s no way to get it to you.

Greetings from Seat 6D on Flight 1005. When our pilot last checked in we were still east of Syracuse. “Two thousand miles to go,” he said. “A long way.”

For the next five hours I’ll be out-of-touch. There’s no Internet access on this flight. In 21st Century America this is as far off the grid as you get. I can type to my heart’s content, but there’s no way to get it to you.

Maybe the Phillies can overcome their seven run hole to the Mets. I won’t know. I really am cut off.

There was one interesting incident at the airport today. As I was clearing TSA screening an agent walked up to me holding my VISA card in her hand. Somehow it had dropped from my wallet. By seeking me out&#185 she saved my trip!

I stopped at the TSA podium to fill out a customer service card. My thanks are heartfelt.

It’s still amazing to me you can climb into a hollow aluminum tube at one side of the country and step out hours later at the other side.

Airplane travel is less passenger friendly than it once was. Security screening and the lack of non-stop flights means getting anywhere takes longer. There’s no longer food onboard. I’ll be hungry by Burbank. You can’t congregate by the forward lavoratory.

I’ve seen a few folks toting tablet computers on this flight. One is watching a movie in widescreen splendor.

The tablets look so appealing. I have no idea what I’d do with one nor why I’d need it with my laptops at the ready. This is some sort of inbred technlust.

It’s windy in Las Vegas. I checked the observations and terminal forecast as I was walking down the jetway. Wind gusts to 40 mph already with no letup this afternoon. Our pilot will have to wrestle this plane to the ground!

&#185 – I’m typing this entry in Microsoft word. It wants me to say “By seeking I out” instead of “By seeking me out.” Strange error. You’d think Word was smarter after this many iterations.

(this entry posted from the ground in Las Vegas)