The Department of Never Mind
A collection of six inventions that prompt a single question: What the…?
- Air & Space magazine, September 2009
NASM (SI Neg. #SI 91-1833)
(Page 2 of 3)
But the best idea, insists Gutierrez, was to put everyone, pilots included, in a large capsule in the payload bay during launch and reentry, and automate those phases of the flight. The capsule would be durable enough for reentry on its own, followed by an Apollo-style parachute deployment, and would therefore provide an escape for any phase of the mission. It would double as a roomy airlock prior to spacewalks, and generally furnish more elbowroom in orbit. “The elegance of sticking this thing in the payload bay was that there’s no redesign,” says Gutierrez. “It would have been survivable for both accidents we’ve had, which were worst-case scenarios.” But even this idea seemed too expensive to many of the higher-ups at NASA. Says Gutierrez, “I explained to a couple NASA administrators that nothing is more expensive than an accident.”
As for Mullane’s final judgment on what the astronaut corps ended up with? “Many of us placed the slide-pole bailout procedures in the same category as the pre-Challenger contingency-abort procedures — busywork while dying.”
Another Flying Car? Meh.
I hereby name Terrafugia’s Transition most awesome airplane of the year, and I want it to succeed in every way; I really do. But history is not on its side. That may be the reason that the Massachusetts-based company’s co-founder Carl Dietrich refers to the Transition as a “roadable aircraft” instead of as a “flying car.”
A flying car has been a goal of daydreaming engineers, professional and amateur, for at least 90 years. Between 1918 and 1993, 76 U.S. patents for flying cars were issued. Notable efforts include Robert Fulton’s 1946 Airphibian, Waldo Waterman’s 1937 Arrowbile, the 1950s Bryan Roadable, and Molt Taylor’s much-photographed 1950s Aerocar, one of which was still flying in the mid-1990s. In recent years, Paul Moller’s Skycar, in the works since 1965 and ultimately powered by eight Wankel-type rotary engines, has made headlines — largely for the millions Moller has poured into the project. In what he calls “an exercise in evaluation,” Moller placed an early prototype on eBay last October. “We wanted to see what it might fetch,” he says. He set the price he was willing to accept at $3.5 million, and withdrew after the highest bid reached close to $2 million. According to Moller, he has 67 orders, but not enough capital investors.
Terrafugia investors expect customers to be driving/flying early in 2010. Fabricated of composites, the Transition qualifies for the Federal Aviation Administration class of light-sport aircraft, weighing under 1,320 pounds. It runs on gasoline, has a 460-mile range, and will cost just under $200,000. Flight testing of the proof-of-concept vehicle was completed last spring, with 28 flights. Next up: a beta prototype design. So the technology is there and so is the excitement, but show me the market.
Despite the best intentions, all flying car projects have eventually ground to a halt, due largely to colossal indifference in the marketplace.
The Airline Idea that Got Flushed
A lunchtime chat among four co-workers at IBM led to one of the oddest aviation patents ever issued: a computer system for airline passengers to make reservations to use the restroom.
“I had started a lunch group and we’d meet once a week,” recalls Sam Dinkin, then an economist at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. “The discussion at the time was about blood clots and how someone had died on an airliner of deep-vein thrombosis. Then someone mentioned that somebody also had died of a broken neck in turbulence, and we all thought, ‘Well why should anybody be standing up waiting to use the bathroom?’ We’ve got the technology to organize a queue.”
By the summer of 2000, Dinkin, along with co-workers Stephen Bois, Paul Moskowitz, and Phillip Yu, had designed a computer system that could schedule bathroom use either on a first-come, first-served basis or by ranking requests, according to such factors as seating class, ticket price, or frequent-flier status. Then it would electronically notify passengers when it was their turn to go. The result: “System and Method for Providing Reservations for Restroom Use,” U.S. patent no. 6,329,919, issued December 11, 2001.
“It seemed to us like a long shot that it would even be granted,” says Dinkin, now living in Austin, Texas. “Every idea has to be a little bit kooky. If not, someone would have thought of it and filed for it a long time ago.” The inventors had expected that the Federal Aviation Administration would issue new rules about standing in commercial aircraft, especially in light of the September 11, 2001 attacks, in which some hijackers had queued to use the first-class restroom before taking over the airplanes.
What Dinkin and the others hadn’t expected were the howls of criticism from the media, which both ridiculed the invention and held up the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as an example of a wasteful bureaucracy. The next year, IBM quietly withdrew the patent.
Today, Dinkin holds no grudges. “If I were IBM, I wouldn’t want any tarnish from it. No one anticipated that it would be a particular patent held up to ridicule,” he says. As for the patent itself, “I’m happy to put my name on it. It’s called ‘the potty patent.’ Whenever I’m in a conversation with [intellectual property] attorneys, we can have a great discussion. I just wish I had donated it to a charity, rather than let it go into the public domain.”
Think of rubber aircraft, and the Goodyear blimp probably springs to mind. But Goodyear, the company best known for tires and rigid airships, was also responsible for a 1950s invention called the Inflatoplane. An inflatable rubber airplane, it was to rescue downed pilots (when folded, the aircraft was stored in a suitcase that could be dropped behind enemy lines). The idea wasn’t new; inventor Taylor McDaniel had filed a patent in 1930 for an inflatable glider, and the British magazine Flight reported in the mid-1930s that the Soviets were producing a rubberized glider with inflatable tubes that weighed only 93 pounds and could taxi on land or sea. Goodyear’s version, which weighed 225 pounds, had a wingspan of 22 feet, and could cruise at about 60 mph, almost as fast as a Piper J-3 Cub. The aircraft held 20 gallons of fuel, could carry a maximum weight of 240 pounds, and had a range of 390 miles. Testing was slow: “We’ve just been flying them gingerly around so far,” a Goodyear manager told the Washington Post in April 1959. When test pilot Richard Ulm took the Inflatoplane to 5,000 feet to test its dive capabilities, a wing buckled, requiring Ulm to abandon the craft. (A helicopter rescued him after he parachuted into a tree.)
By 1959, the Department of Defense came up with its own version of the idea: Project Wagmight. Unlike the Inflatoplane, the military craft would be unmanned. Planners envisioned inflatable rubber aircraft carrying large nuclear warheads 1,500 miles. The airplanes “could be launched from ships, surfaced submarines, or large Army trucks with a simple catapult or rocket-assisted launcher,” reported the Washington Post. Advocates claimed that a carrier could store 1,000 deflated aircraft, versus the standard 80 metal airplanes. Nonetheless, the project was dropped in the early 1960s.
Goodyear’s Inflatoplane also deflated. To take off, the vehicle needed a flat area not easily found in the jungles of Vietnam. “It was just one of those things that didn’t really have a practical application,” says Dik Daso, aeronautics curator with the National Air and Space Museum. “If you could drop this thing to a pilot, well, you could probably pick him up with a helicopter too.” After building 12 Inflatoplanes, Goodyear canceled the project in 1973.