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Men’s Journal: How to Become a Pilot

Being able to fly a plane is a rare privilege: Just one American in a thousand holds a private pilot’s license. Yet joining their ranks is nether as difficult nor as dangerous as many assume. Men’s Journal has just posted my 12-part slideshow on what you need to know to get started.

Throttle#1: Get Your License

Actually, the proper FAA term is a private pilot certificate, and the kind you’ll want is called “Aircraft, single engine, land,” or PP-ASEL. In order to earn it, you’ll need a medical checkup, then spend a minimum of 35 hours ground instruction and 40 hours in the air, followed by a written test, an oral test, and a check ride with an FAA-designated examiner. Realistically, you should expect to spend at least 60 to 70 hours of flying time before trying to pass a check ride, a process that will cost you on the order of $8,000. Doing all that can take anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on how aggressively you pursue your goal. Once you get your ticket, you’re legally qualified to fly at night and with any number of passengers, though you can’t fly inside clouds – you’ll need additional “Instrument Flight Rules” training for that, which will cost about the same amount of money again.

Read the other 11 steps at Men’s Journal.
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Travel + Leisure: Driving Hawaii’s Big Island

“Buy land—they’re not making any more of it,” the saying goes. Well, that’s not quite true on the Big Island of Hawaii, where at this moment molten rock is spilling into the Pacific, making the state’s biggest, newest island even bigger and newer. And the lava isn’t all that’s fresh on the scene. In the November 2013 issue of Travel +Leisure I plot out nine red-hot reasons to visit right now. Check it out on newsstands! In the meantime, as a teaser, here are four of my favorites:

Volcano House Lodge, Volcano, HI

#1: Volcano House. The only hotel in America that’s perched on the lip of an active volcanic caldera, this iconic National Park Service Lodge has just reopened after a four-year closure and renovation. On a clear night, step outside your room and watch the glow of a subterranean lava lake reflected in the billowing plume.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Popular Mechanics: How Not to Die

PM Oct 13 Cover croppedYou know what danger looks like: A whirling saw blade.  An enraged pit bull lunging against a chain-link fence. A fallen electrical cable, bare metal sparking on wet pavement: Some kinds of danger are so overt that they seem to radiate a palpable sense of menace. Just to be near them is to be on high alert.

Evidently some dangers aren’t obvious enough, though. Even in an age in which EMTs and emergency room doctors are capable of saving all but the most grievously injured, accidents kill 120,000 Americans a year. It’s the third most common cause of death among American men between the ages of 18 and 65.

It’s tempting to label accident victims as careless or stupid, the losers in life’s ongoing game of Darwinian selection. I would never do that we tell ourselves, when we hear about someone else’s fatal error. Believing that is a way of insulating ourselves from the reality of life’s terrifying fragility. In fact the world is filled with all kinds of dangers, and many of them aren’t as obvious as sparking cables or whirling blades.  Perfectly sane and reasonable people fall victim all the time.

What makes some potentially lethal threats sneakier than others? It has to do with the way the brain processes danger.
Primitive circuitry nestled deep within the folds of the cerebral cortex constantly monitor sensory data streaming in from the eyes and ears, looking to match patterns that are known through instinct or learning to be associated with danger. “We interpret external cues through our subconscious fear centers very quickly,” says Harvard University’s David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It Really? That prickly sense of danger we feel, Ropeik says, is actually our subconscious mind alerting us that it’s detected something in the environment fits one of these templates.

The problem is, the subconscious mind lacks subtlety. It can’t parse the meaning of complex or unfamiliar scenarios. If it doesn’t detect its preset triggers, it will hum along quietly in the background as usual. If you’re waiting for alarm bells to sound to alert you to every lurking threat, then, you could walk right into a death trap.

In my cover story for this month’s Popular Mechanics, I look at 20 kinds of hazards, both natural and man-made, that can cut short a life with little warning. The trick to avoiding them, I suggest, is is to move beyond instinct and bring your conscious, rational mind to bear. By learning about about life’s hidden hazards beforehand, you’ll be able steer around danger even without the inner alarm bells going off. And that’s no mean feat. Statistically, one in seven American men will end his life prematurely thanks to an accident. Forewarned, you should be able to stretch those odds considerably.

You can read the whole story here.

UPDATE: I was delighted to hear on Christmas Day that NextIssue chose this story as one of their 32 favorite stories of 2013. 




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Happy 100th Birthday to The Great American Road

reno markerThe freedom of the open road — the ability to get on the highway and drive wherever your heart takes you – seems like such a fundamental part of the American character that it’s hard to imagine the country without a coast-to-coast highway network. And yet, at the beginning of the last century, paved roads were unknown outside of city centers. The prospect of driving a horseless carriage any significant distance seemed fraught with outlandish dangers. Then a group of visionary automobile enthusiasts came up with a wildly futuristic plan: to establish a motorway across the whole breadth of the North American continent. At the time, this seemed as far-out as the Hyperloop does today. No one had ever conceived of building a road that long before, let alone figured out how to pay for it, so instead of actually building a new road the group just picked out a route from New York to San Fransisco by linking together of a series of pre-existing roads, tracks and trails, nearly all of it dirt and some it simply open desert. They called the resulting line on a map the Lincoln Highway and announced the route to the public on September 14, 1913.

To begin with, the Lincoln Highway had no official status. It was really nothing more than an idea. But it was such a powerful one that the idea of driving from the Atlantic to the Pacific caught on. Even Emily Post gave it a try. The great adventure captured the public imagination and galvanized political will to get the government involved in building new roads. So you could say that we owe our sacred automotive freedom to a master stroke of public relations. I wrote about my own trip on the Lincoln Highway–or what still remains of it a century later–for Travel +Leisure. You can read the whole thing here.


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Success: Better Than Smart

Alan Meckler’s drive to succeed has never flagged. In grade school, he taught himself to read by poring over his father’s newspapers. In high school, he earned spots on multiple varsity teams, and at Columbia University he made the dean’s list. He went on to earn a doctorate in history before launching a prosperous career as an entrepreneur. Today, at 68, he’s the chairman and CEO of the Internet content consortium Mediabistro.

Not such an unusual trajectory for a successful executive, perhaps. But there’s a twist to Meckler’s story. Throughout his life, Meckler labored under a secret shame. He struggled to understand things that his peers grasped easily. His grade-school teachers wanted to hold him back. His father bluntly belittled him as “stupid.” Even after he’d been accepted into an Ivy League university, Meckler says, “I was very worried that I would be found out, that I really was stupid.”

His College Board scores were so low, in fact, that after he’d made the dean’s list, school psychologists asked to test him so they could figure out how he’d done it. But they were stumped. “They had me do puzzles,” he says, “and they said that I couldn’t solve problems that most 7- or 8-year-olds could.” College Board officials wanted to study him, too. “They seemed to think,” says Meckler, “that I was some kind of freak.”

The story appears in the September, 21013 issue of Success magazine. Read the rest here.

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Signs of the Times


Why is it so hard to catch even glaring errors? That’s one of the questions addressed in “Your Bleeped Up Brain.” Viewer John Chismar sent me this picture of a shop near his home. He writes, “Your program reminded me of a photo I took a few years ago of a printing shop around the corner from my house. I took the photo a few days after they beefed up the store’s appearance. To be honest, I never noticed anything was wrong until a visiting friend pointed out the error.” Thanks, John!

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Listening to Fear

I liked this quote from the recent New York Times article by Ed Caesar on Hervé le Gallou, who died while base jumping last year:

Dave McDonnell, an English friend of Le Gallou’s, said that before he quit base jumping, he used to hear three distinct internal voices at the exit point, which he called “Yes,” “Fear” and “No.”

“If you’re all tuned in, there’s ‘Yes,’ ” he said. “On the mediocre days, there are two other voices­. One’s ‘Fear.’ Your body is screaming out at you, ‘Don’t do this,’ because it’s dangerous, unnatural. You’re there to conquer your fear. But there’s another voice that hangs around every now and again, and that’s called ‘No.’ Something’s not right. You can never put your finger on it — it could be something in your pack job, or the weather, or the people you’re jumping with, or your mind-set. It’s just, ‘Walk away, don’t go jumping today.’ The difficulty is trying to discern between ‘Fear’ and ‘No,’ because they’re both telling you the same thing. ‘No’ is your sixth sense that’s trying to save your life.”

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Your Bleeped Up Brain

Don’t trust your brain–at least, not before you watch our new four-part miniseries on why your cognitive machinery is predisposed to be fooled. The show airs Saturdays at 10pm on H2. You can watch the whole first episode here.

Here’s the teaser for episode 2:


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Human Powered Aircraft Race Heats Up

I’ve been spending this week at the world’s first internationally sanctioned human-powered aircraft race, the Icarus Cup, embedded with Team Betterfly, headed by amateur builder David Barford. Barford, 44, builds Formula One engines for Mercedes-Benz, and has no background in aeronautics and has never flown an airplane. He spent eight years building Betterfly in his garage, with no aim in mind than a passion to see if he could pedal himself into the air. Well, remarkably, his team currently stands at the top of the leader board, ahead of three university teams and two other aircraft built by professional aircraft designers. Here’s footage of a 200-meter flight Barford took Monday evening. It was taken by Stephen Warrick.

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Finally! A Human-Powered Helicopter Wins the $250,000 Sikorsky Prize

ReichertThis article first appeared on the Popular Mechanics web site.

A quixotic Kickstarter-funded project has won the Sikorsky Prize, one of the most elusive goals in aviation, by keeping a human powered helicopter aloft for more than a minute. Aerovelo, an aeronautical engineering startup founded by Canadians Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson, announced this morning that the Federation d’Aviation Intenationale (FAI)—the governing body of international aeronautical prizes—has certified a flight that Reichert piloted on June 13 as having met the qualifications for the $250,000 prize.

The rules of the American Helicopter Society Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Challenge, established in 1980, specify that the craft must fly for 60 seconds, must rise to an altitude of at least 3 meters (about 10 feet), and must remain within a horizontal area no bigger than 10 meters by 10 meters (33 feet by 33 feet). The actual flight, completed at an indoor soccer stadium near Toronto, lasted 64 seconds and reached a maximum altitude of 3.3 meters.

The prize-winning flight came at the very end of five days of test flights, after which the space would no longer be available. On two earlier flights, Reichert pilot the craft, called Atlas, to heights of 2 meters and 2.5 meters. With just minutes remaining before the team was scheduled to vacate the stadium to make way for an evening soccer practice, Reichert managed to squeeze in one last flight. Within 10 seconds a horn sounded signaling that he had exceeded the 3-meter mark. Read the rest of this entry »

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