Physics for Poets
Story by Martha McPhee | Rhapsody August 2016
What my father taught me about the mechanics of takeoff—and the sublime
I've always loved to fly, especially taking off—the taxiing, the takeoff cue, the sound of the engines powering up, the speed of acceleration, the sheer magnitude of pushing so much metal into air (in airline-pilot argot, it's called “pushing tube"), the force of it all followed by the sudden calm and almost omniscient view of the world slowly scrolling beneath the plane.
As a child, on a flight from Newark to Atlanta with my father, I asked him to explain how it was possible to keep a plane aloft, to thrust it into the sky and have it stay there. Planes have always fascinated him. When he was 10, during World War II, he volunteered with the Air Warning Service to plane spot, searching the skies above his hometown of Princeton, New Jersey, for enemy aircraft. He knew them all: Focke-Wulf, Junkers, Heinkel, Messerschmitt. He can recite them still today.
One year, for his birthday, he asked his mother if she'd take him to LaGuardia Field so he could watch from the observation tower as the planes took off and landed. My grandmother navigated first train, then subway, then bus to stand in the blistering cold so that her boy could see the DC-3s coming and going, mesmerized by their wings flapping in the March gusts.
In college, my father took a class dubbed “Physics for Poets" and learned Bernoulli's principle, which states that an increase in a fluid's speed results in a decrease in pressure. On that flight to Atlanta, as our plane raced down the runway and lifted, miraculously, into the air, he in turn explained the process to me, making an airfoil with the back of his right hand and using his left to mimic the movement of air over and under the wing. “Air is a fluid, like water," he said. “And it behaves just like water, only it's so thin you can't see it." Outside the window, the places of our lives—the houses and cars and shopping centers—became smaller and smaller. The plane buoyed above it all like a toy boat.
I like to land as well—the engines slowing, the banking, the descending, the sound of the wheels, the familiar world returning to focus. On international flights from Italy, where I sometimes travel, touchdown in the States is still often punctuated, charmingly, by applause, as in recognition that the pilots have just put on a show—a performance piece—and they have.
I like it best when I am in the plane, but I also like to watch them land from the ground. My sister once had an apartment on Morningside Drive in Harlem, with a living room window looking east, over the city and out to LaGuardia. You could watch in the distance a stream of planes coming and going, and I would spend hours watching them with her father-in-law, a civil engineer, transfixed by the coordinated ziggurat of their paths.
On the way to visit my parents in Princeton, I pass Newark—the route intersects with the bottom of the runways, so if I hit it just right, I drive right beneath a plane landing or just lifting off. It's a complete sensation—the magnitude of the engines, the whirling air, the vibrations and sounds, the intoxicating smell of jet fuel, all of it combining to evoke the thrill and wonder of travel.
Once, on a layover on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten, I stayed at a hotel next to Maho Beach, a strip of sand at the top of the airport's runway. In the early afternoon, flights began to arrive, 747s from London and Paris, first a glint in the sky, growing until the belly of the plane was right above us, a colossal achievement that spectators with cameras tried to capture.
I can see it still: The head of the runway is separated from the beach by a chain-link fence with a sign warning of the danger of jet blast. And a blast is just what it feels like when the pilot throttles up, sending us scurrying for cover. A few daredevils grip the cyclone fence, held aloft like wind socks flapping in a gale. After a brief respite, a plane lands and another readies for takeoff. People again grip the fence, swimmers prepare to dive beneath the water, sunbathers wrap themselves in towels as a shield from the ensuing sandstorm. Then you feel the blast, the power of the mechanical sublime, and where it can take you.
Our Marketing Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity team and Bridge, our Business Resource Group (BRG) for people with all abilities, partnered together to test and provide feedback on our award-winning seatback inflight entertainment (IFE) system.
Aptly named "Entertainment for all," our new seatback IFE system offers the an extensive suite of accessibility features, allowing for unassisted use by people of all visual, hearing, mobility and language abilities.
"It's nice to know that I can get on a plane and pick my favorite entertainment to enjoy, just like every customer," said Accessibility Senior Analyst and Developer and Bridge Chief of Staff Ray C., who is blind.
"As a deaf employee, the closed captioning availability on board our aircraft is something I value greatly," added Information Technology Analyst Greg O. "The new IFE further cements United's visibility within the deaf community and elsewhere. It makes me proud to be an employee."
Accessibility features of the new IFE include a text-to-speech option, explore by touch, customizable text size, screen magnification, color correction and inversion modes, and alternative navigation options for those unable to swipe or use a handset. For hearing-impaired and non-English-speaking passengers, customization options provide the ability for customers to be served content and receive inflight notifications based on their preferences and settings —with closed captions, with subtitles or in the language of their choice from the 15 languages supported. Our "Entertainment for all" system won the Crystal Cabin Award in 2019, and recently, the Dr. Margaret Pfanstiehl Research and Development Award for Audio Description by the American Council of the Blind.
"This really showed the benefits of partnering with BRGs in helping us improve products and services for our customers and employees," said Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity Senior Manager Corinne S. "Even though we have been recognized with awards for our IFE accessibility features, we are not resting on our laurels but continuing to work towards improving the inflight entertainment experience for all of our customers to ensure entertainment is available for all."
If your travels have taken you through Chicago O'Hare International Airport anytime since October 2019, you may have had a friendly, caring and jovial exchange with Daniel Smrokowski. Daniel is one of four Service Ambassadors thanks to our ongoing partnership with Special Olympics. This inaugural ambassador program aims to provide Special Olympic athletes employment opportunities within our operation, affording them a unique and meaningful career.
Since 2018, our partnership with Special Olympics has become one of United's most cherished relationships, going beyond the events we take part in and volunteer with. While the plane pull competitions, polar plunges, duck derbies and Special Olympics World Games and other events around the world are a big part of our involvement, the heart of this partnership lies with the athletes and individuals supported by Special Olympics. To advocate for their inclusion in every setting is one of our biggest honors, and we take great pride in the role we play in the organization's inclusion revolution.
Aiding in the success of Special Olympics' mission to create continuing opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities, throughout the two-year partnership, United has volunteered over 10,500 hours and donated over $1.2 million in travel to the organization. The impact of this partnership is felt at every level, both at Special Olympics and within our own ranks.
"The Inclusion Revolution campaign, led by our athletes, aims to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities. United Airlines has joined in our fight for inclusion, empowering our athletes with the skills needed to succeed and opportunities to contribute their abilities as leaders," said Special Olympics International Chairman Tim Shriver. "United Airlines believes that people with intellectual disabilities should be perceived as they really are: independent, world-class athletes, students, employees, neighbors, travelers, and leaders who contribute to make this world a better place."
Our Service Ambassador program is just one of the many ways Special Olympics has impacted not only our employees, but also our customers. "I see every day how our Service Ambassadors connect with our customers the moment they walk into the airport lobby," said Senior Customer Service Supervisor Steve Suchorabski. "They provide a warm, welcoming smile ad assist in any way they can. To see these young adults hold positions that a society once told them they couldn't is truly the most heartwarming part of my job," Steve continued.
"The opportunity to be a part of the United family means everything to me," Daniel said. "I feel so much pride showing up to work in a Special Olympics/United co-branded uniform, working among such a loving and supportive community. The relationship between these two organizations is truly helping to shape my future while letting me use my gifts of communicating and helping others. Hopefully, I can spend my entire career at United," Daniel added.
In honor of Special Olympics' Global Week of Inclusion in July, we're asking our employees, customers and partners to sign a pledge to #ChooseToInclude at jointherevolution.org/pledge.
And be sure to check out Daniel's podcast
The Special Chronicles.
In collaboration with food-logistics company Commodity Forwarders Inc. (CFI), United moved nearly 190,000 pounds of fresh produce to Guam for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program. This new program was created to provide critical support to consumers impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
A variety of fresh fruits were transported from Los Angeles (LAX) to Guam (GUM) on United's newly introduced, non-stop cargo-only flight – a route added to meet cargo demand during the COVID-19 crisis. The fresh food was repacked in 10-pound cases in Los Angeles, prepared for departure at CFI's LAX location, and flown to GUM by the United team. Through this beneficial partnership between United and CFI, the perishable goods were kept cool during every step of the process and distributed as part of the food bank program in Guam.
"Everyone on our team has worked relentlessly during the pandemic to get critical goods to where they are needed most. Establishing a comprehensive network of cargo-only flights have allowed us to keep the supply chain moving even while passenger flight capacity has been reduced," said Regional Senior Manager of Cargo Sales, Marco Vezjak. "Knowing that we are able to help during these difficult times – in this case the Guam community – is our biggest reward and greatest motivation to keep moving forward."
United is proud to play a role in maintaining the global food supply chain and helping people access the supplies they need. Since March 19, United has operated over 4,000 cargo-only flights, moving over 130 million pounds of cargo.
Together, we are facing an unprecedented challenge. United Together, we rise to meet that challenge.
Calling all AvGeeks and travelers! Here's a fun way to take your next video call….from a United Polaris® seat, the cockpit or cruising altitude. We're introducing United-themed backgrounds for use on Zoom and Microsoft Teams, video conferencing tools that many people are using to stay connected.
So for your next meeting or catch up with friends and family, download the app to either your computer or mobile device to get started. If you've already downloaded Zoom you can skip ahead to updating your background image (see instructions below).
To use on Zoom:
- Start here by downloading your favorite United image to your computer or mobile device. Just click "download" in the bottom left corner of the image.
- Next go to your Zoom app (you'll need to download the app to access backgrounds) and click on the arrow to the right of your video camera icon in the bottom of the screen.
- From here select, "choose virtual background" to upload your uniquely United photo.
- Start by downloading your favorite United image to your computer. Just click "download" in the bottom left corner of the image.
- If you're using a PC, copy the image you want to use into this folder:
- C:\[insert your device user name here]\AppData\Microsoft\Teams\Backgrounds\Uploads
- If you're using a Mac copy the images to this folder on your computer:
- /users/<username>/Library/Application Support/Microsoft/Teams/Backgrounds/Uploads
- If you're using a PC, copy the image you want to use into this folder:
- Once you start a Teams meeting, click the "…" in the menu bar and select "Show background effects" and your image should be there
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It all began when Jason reached out to United's social media team, hoping for assistance with his upcoming plan to propose. Some phone calls and one borrowed guitar later, the stage was set for Jason. Put all that together, mix in some helpful United employees and, voila, you have a truly memorable marriage proposal. Congratulations to this fun-loving and happy couple, and here's to many more years of making beautiful music together.
A big thank you to Chicago-based flight attendants Donna W., Marie M., Karen J. and Mark K. for making this proposal come to life.