MythBusters Recap: Drones, Planes and Fantasiesby Alan Eggleston / July 26, 2015
As this new episode of MythBusters opens, Adam Savage is assembling a model of a “Dragon Lady” U-2 reconnaissance plane, when a four-propeller drone piloted by Jamie Hyneman flies in and hits Adam in the head. Like a V-8 forehead-slap epiphany, the incident gives Adam and Jamie some ideas for their next episode: “Flight of Fantasy.”
With the emergence of multi-rotor drones as hobbies and as proposed delivery systems, might they become dangerous to humans? And speaking of U-2 reconnaissance planes, there’s a myth that they are the hardest planes to fly and land — how true is that?
So off they go to test the two ideas.
Deciphering Dangerous Drones
The most dangerous part of a multi-rotor drone is the propeller, so Adam and Jamie begin their test with a proof of concept using a hand-held single rotor mounted on a pole. They poke it at a defrosted de-feathered chicken, and the rotor blade slits the flesh and into the muscle, which looks promising for their quest.
Next they test two commercially available drones. One is an out-of-the kit four-rotor drone and the other is a sturdier six-rotor kit.
To ramp up the test, Adam creates a human analog using ballistic gel with tubes in the neck filled with blue “blood” to simulate arteries.
Jamie flies each of these drones into the human analog, nailing it perfectly at the neck, but there’s no damage. A look at slow motion footage shows that the propeller blades provided with each drone bent when they came into contact with the body, obviously a feature designed into the blades by the manufacturers.
Suddenly, the drones aren’t looking all that dangerous.
As is usual on MythBusters, it’s now time to amp up the ramp up. Adam and Jamie bring in their custom-made camera platform. Unlike the lightweight commercial versions, this drone weighs considerably more (16 lbs), has eight rotors, and rather than having flexible blades the propellers are made of sturdy carbon fiber.
Jamie hands over control to the MythBusters’ expert “Specialty Camera Operator,” who flies the drone into the human analog and decisively inflicts a wound, drawing fake blood.
The multi-rotor drones you can buy at the store prove to be pretty safe, but multi-rotor drones are a new hobby and people are building bigger, heftier drones to handle bigger and heavier loads. So how do Adam and Jamie answer the question, are multi-rotor drones dangerous?
- Conclusion: Plausible.
Rating the Lockheed U-2
To determine if the Lockheed U-2 the hardest plane to fly and land, Adam and Jamie head to the Beale Air Force Base, where pilots train and U-2’s are maintained. You don’t just climb into a U-2 high altitude reconnaissance plane and fly, and our duo will undergo a week of rigorous training.
Before someone even enters the cockpit, they have to learn how to survive in that environment. The plane flies at 70,000 feet, near the edge of space where the air is thin and cold. Flights require endurance in pressurized suits flying inside a depressurized plane. If there is an emergency, they have to be trained how to save their own lives. So for five full days, Adam and Jamie train on suit safety – the U-2 is the only military plane that requires a pressurized suit; they also train on parachute procedures, plane crash maneuvers, and bail out protocols. Then there is acclimating their bodies to the pressure in the suit and depressurization. Getting ready for a flight requires over 800 check-off items. What becomes clear is, flight training and preparation is no easy task. “Two words come to mind,” says Adam: “Complex and terrifying.” After experiencing the pressurization chamber, Jamie agrees, “Kind of scary.”
All that’s left, then, is for the crew to finalize their flight plan and the MythBusters to decide who gets to fly – there’s only room for one. In the end, Jamie decides that as fanatical as Adam is about space and spacesuits, he can’t deny Adam the pleasure. With a huge grin, Adam suits up and gets the flight of his dreams.
The U-2 narrowly balances on two sets of wheels directly beneath the fuselage like a bicycle. Other aircraft use a set of three, more like a tricycle. The long wings of the U-2 are awkwardly supported on the ground by detachable wheels that as the plane taxis on the runway fall away, so taking off becomes a balancing act. Clearly, this takes unusual skill.
Almost as soon as the plane moves down the runway it lifts up, immediately climbing to 5,000 feet, then 10,000 feet and quickly higher. Soon Adam is swooning at the view well above San Francisco, ticking off the altitude, ultimately reaching 70,000 feet.
Pilots can spend upwards of 12 hours on a mission. They eat, drink, and take care of their bodily functions while working on mission objectives without a rest, at the top of the atmosphere in pressurized suits using specialized equipment with dangerous consequences if it fails.
The dream flight comes to an end – now comes the descent and landing.
The pilot begins by creating drag to slow the plane from 0.75 mach to landing speed for approach. As the U-2 nears the runway, the pilot then considers the uplift from the wings, making the plane float as he tries to land it. And there’s that landing gear arrangement making it like landing a bicycle, proving the plane difficult to control. Yet what makes landing a U-2 most difficult of all is that the pilot cannot see the runway as he gets close to the ground, so he is guided by another pilot in a chase car. No other military plane requires this agility or assistance.
Adam and his pilot bring the “Dragon Lady” down safely and it’s smiles all around. “That was awesome!” beams Adam. Paraphrasing Adam and Jamie, the U-2 is a unique plane built for a unique mission requiring a larger flight crew and a more exhaustive set of protocols than any other plane in the military, plus it’s the only airborne aircraft besides actual spacecraft that requires the use of a spacesuit in flight. And no other aircraft takes off and lands on two sets of wheels centered under the fuselage. Is the U-2 the hardest plane to fly and land?
- Conclusion: Plausible
Last week’s new episode appeared at 9 pm (ET) but tonight started a new time slot for MythBusters: 8 pm (ET).
Next week’s MythBusters is titled “Accidental Ammo,” and a promotional video showed Adam Savage lawn mowing through a line of debris at plywood people, plus I’ve seen a reference to a falling pane of glass cutting a person in half. Is there more human analog carnage in our future? Tune in to the Discovery Channel on August 1 to find out!