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Episode 94: Airplane Hour (Talked Into Landing, Parachute Pandemonium)

  • Talked Into Landing: a passenger can be talked into a safe landing of an airplane plausible
  • Parachute Pandemonium (aka Point Break parachute myths):
    • You can fall 4000 ft in 90 seconds: busted
    • You can have a shouting match in mid-air: busted
    • You can catch another skydiver with a 15-second lead: confirmed
  • MacGuyver mini-myth: You can stop a sulfuric acid leak using chocolate and hot water confirmed

This episode gave me ideas on places I want to visit in the Bay Area: NASA Ames' Advanced Concepts Plane Simulator and iFly SFBay's indoor skydive facility.

See also:

Talked Into Landing

Myth: An airplane passenger can be talked down into a safe landing

In a scene familiar to fans of Airplane!, the pilots of a plane are incapacitated and one of the passengers is forced to fly the plane into a safe landing.

However, in real life, this has never happened: no passenger has ever been talked into a landing. Also, modern planes have autopilots that are capable of landing the plane. All a passenger would have to do is turn a couple knobs and press a couple buttons.

For their tests, Jamie and Adam used NASA Ames' Advanced Concepts Plane Simulator -- it was too dangerous to land a real plane. Terry Rager, Facility Manager at NASA Ames, ran the simulator and talked them in.

Landing without assistance

Jamie broke plenty of FAA regulations on his unguided attempt to land the plane: he couldn't even find the landing gear and landed at twice the recommended speed. All were dead. Adam did little better, skidding into farmland 10 miles from the airport.

Landing with assistance

Under Terry Rager's guidance, Jamie and Adam each took turns at landing. Terry had an flight controller's view of the plane: he couldn't see their controls as he talked them in.

  • Jamie: Jamie landed the plane safely, even with the tailwind and turbulence that Terry sent his way
  • Adam: Adam also landed the plane safely, this time with headwind


Parachute Pandemonium

Three myths from one scene in Point Break: Patrick Swayze jumps out of the plane at 4000 ft with the last remaining chute. Keanu Reeves jumps after him 15 seconds later and proceeds to catch him. They have a shouting match in midair before pulling the parachute cord and landing hard. The total time for the free-fall: 90 seconds.

  • Myth 1 ("The 4000ft Drop"): You can fall 4000 ft in 90 seconds
  • Myth 2 ("The Mid-air Conversation"): You can have a shouting match in mid-air
  • Myth 3 ("Freefall Catchup"):

They enlisted the services of Sky Dance Sky Diving to do the testing of the three myths.

4000ft Drop

They pushed out a simulaid at 4000 ft with a smoke canister so they could time the freefall. The simulaid burst in half on landing. 31 seconds


Mid-air Conversation

Sky dive specialist Dan Blakeley was instructed to deliver the following line to Grant in mid-air: "Grant, if you pull my finger, you will hear a tuba." Dan repeated the line to him over and over until Grant's parachute was pulled.

Grant couldn't hear a thing.


Freefall Catchup

Grant setup a small scale test to verify that objects with the same mass, but different shapes, have different terminal velocities. If not, there would be no way for one person to catch another in free fall. Grant dropped in two metal person cutouts: one spread-eagle cutout and one arms-at-side. The spread-eagle cutout had a terminal velocity of 1450 ft/min and the streamlined cutout had a terminal velocity of 2000 ft/min.

They went to iFly SFBay, which is an indoor skydive facility. Kari and Tory both went into the chamber. Tory went spread-eagle and hovered in mid-air while Kari kept her arms at her side and stayed stuck to the ground.

For the real jump, Tory jumped out tandem first with a small control chute to keep his speed at 120mph (calculated freefall speed for Swayze). After 15 seconds, Kari signalled skydiver Nick to jump out in pursuit. Nick fly straight down headfirst at 250 mph and managed to fly past Tory 20 seconds later.


MacGuyver mini-myth

Myth: You can stop a sulfuric acid leak using chocolate and hot water

Kari and Grant showed that the sugars in the chocolate react to plug the leak