Physics for Poets - United Hub
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Physics for Poets

By The Hub team, August 17, 2016

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.


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