On Monday, January 27, 2014, I appeared on Katie Couric’s daytime talk show to discuss how ordinary people can be real-life heroes, a subject I’d covered in a Reader’s Digest cover story.
A few times a month, Airbus Flight Test Engineer Patrick du Ché stands up from his desk, takes off his jacket and tie, walks to the coat rack in the corner of his office, and slips into a set of fire-resistant underwear, a bright-orange flight suit, and sturdy black boots. Then he walks down two flights of stairs and out onto the tarmac of Toulouse-Blagnac Airport in southern France. There, rising above a fleet of newly painted A320 short-haul jets, is an Airbus A350-XWB long-range widebody airliner—the very first of its kind. Sleek and nearly all white except for the lettering along its flank and the swirling blue-on-blue Airbus logo on the tail, it carries the official designation MSN001. Last May, in a modest employees-only ceremony, the final assembly line workers formally handed the plane over to the Flight Test Department. Or, as du Ché sees it, “They handed it to me.”
As a flight engineer and head of the department, du Ché gets first pick of the test flights. Although he describes himself as risk-averse, he tends to choose those he calls the most “interesting,” which means at the edge of the plane’s capabilities, where if something goes wrong, it could destroy the plane. Since June, du Ché and his colleagues have flown at the A350’s maximum design speed; conducted aerodynamic stalls; and taken off so slowly that the tail dragged on the ground.
Each test flight is operated by a crew of two pilots and three flight engineers, who monitor the stream of data flowing from a multitude of sensors into a bank of computers installed in the middle of the cabin. Du Ché’s station is behind the co-pilot’s on the right side of the cockpit. On the seat is a parachute. If things should go terribly awry and the crew needs to evacuate, a bright-orange railing leads them from the cockpit door to a hatch in the floor above the forward baggage compartment. By pulling a lever, the crew can trigger a set of explosive charges that will blow a hole in the right side of the fuselage. They can then leap down a slide, through the hole, and into the air. That’s the idea, anyway. Says test pilot Frank Chapman: “If the plane is tumbling out of control, would you really be able to get out?” He shrugs.
Read the rest of the article, from the February 13, 2014 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, here.
“Dad! Hold the tail down!” David Barford shouts to his 73-year-old father, Paul, who shuffles along the grass while supporting a slender spar that connects the rear stabilizers to the cockpit and wings of Betterfly, a fragile aircraft that balances on two inline wheels. David’s 20-year-old daughter, Charlotte, supports the starboard-wing spar with his best friend, Paul Wales. David’s 17-year-old son, Chris, marches alongside the port wing, while David, 44, coordinates the action from the nose of the plane.
Team Betterfly’s sense of urgency grows as the summer daylight fades and the sky west of Sywell Aerodrome, a rural airstrip 75 miles north of London, darkens prematurely with thunderclouds. It’s the second day of the weeklong Icarus Cup, the world’s most challenging human-powered-aircraft competition, and Barford wants to make a first attempt at the speed-course event. Two dozen spectators also anxiously monitor the weather, hoping the threatening rain doesn’t ground the pilots.
The team gently sets Betterfly on the centerline at the end of Sywell’s lone paved runway. To shed weight, Barford strips down to his underwear and bike shoes, and then eases into a red fabric pilot’s seat made from two aluminum folding chairs. The only controls in the transparent cockpit are bike pedals and a handle for the rudder.
Barford calls out, “Three, two, one—rolling!” and begins to pedal furiously. The front-mounted propeller claws the air, and Betterfly starts gathering speed as it rolls down the runway. The crew supporting the aircraft walk, then jog, then sprint as the wings rise from their hands. Betterfly floats off the runway, 1 foot, 2 feet, a yard. Barford’s legs churn. “Go, go!” Wales shouts.
Read the rest of my story about the 2013 Icarus Cup online here at Popular Mechanics.
Alli Rainey was clinging to a sheer rock overhang 120 feet above the ground when she felt her fingers go numb. She’d spent the last 40 minutes painstakingly working herself up a route called Madness in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. Now at the most difficult part of the climb, she realized the muscles in her hands were about to give out. She looked down at the emptiness below her and screamed in terror as her grip slipped and she tumbled from the rock face. Fifty feet down, her belay rope pulled taut and she bobbed in the air, dangling in her safety harness. The crazy thing was that Rainey has an incapacitating fear of heights, yet she’s chosen rock climbing as a full-time career. Then again, doing things she believed to be impossible has been a constant theme of Rainey’s life. And she’s not alone. There are people who’ve figured out how to do things that they believe, that they know, are totally beyond their capabilities—and then do them anyway. I call these people The Impossibles. Are you one, too? If you say no, don’t be so sure—someday you could be.
Read the rest of my story from the January 2014 edition of Success magazine, available online here.
On a cool November afternoon in Fleming Island, Florida, Melissa Hawkinson, then 41, was driving her five-year-old twins home from school when she saw a sudden splash in Doctors Lake just ahead. What was that? she thought. As she drove up to the scene, she saw a half-submerged car sinking about 30 yards offshore. “It was going down pretty quickly,” Hawkinson recalls. She stopped the car near the boat ramp and ran toward the water. This is going to be cold, she thought.
She took off her vest and leather boots, waded into the icy water, and swam out to the car, where she found Cameron Dorsey, five, strapped into his car seat as the swirling waters rose around him.
Hawkinson tried to yank open the door, but it was locked. So she pushed and tugged on the partially open window until she could reach through and unlock the door. She pulled the boy free, swam to shore, and handed him off to bystanders on a dock. The driver, the boy’s suicidal father, swam back to land on his own. Afterward, Hawkinson sat on the shore wrapped in a blanket. “For ten or 15 minutes, I couldn’t stop shaking,” she says.
There’s nothing visibly extraordinary about Melissa Hawkinson, an energetic stay-at-home mom with brown hair and a dimpled smile. Yet something set her apart from the dockside onlookers that day. Why do some people act quickly, willing to take a risk for a stranger? What makes them run toward danger rather than away from it? Hawkinson, the Granite Mountain Hotshots—19 of whom perished this past summer in Arizona—every hero who puts his or her life on the line to save another: What makes them brave?
Moreover, can bravery be learned, or is it a quality with which you are born? The answer is nuanced and complex. Bravery taps the mind, brain, and heart. It issues from instinct, training, and empathy. Today, neurologists, psychologists, and other researchers are studying bravery, trying to unravel the mystery.
Read the rest of my story from the January 2014 edition of Reader’s Digest, available online now.
The doorbell rings, and Katie Wenger, 13, leaps up from the family dinner table and throws open the front door. On the stoop of her family’s building in Chelsea stands a 26-year-old Yale graduate named Allison Kaptur. Formerly a financial analyst, Kaptur quit to teach herself how to program and now works as a facilitator at Hacker School, a “writers’ retreat for programmers,” with a sideline as a coding tutor. The two descend the stairs to a basement study, and Katie shuts the door. “I’ve got exciting news,” she says. “I’m going to launch a start-up! It’s called Let Us.”
“What will it do?”
“It’ll be like Chatroulette, but connected to Facebook.” Katie describes her concept for an online environment in which strangers can randomly meet and either just chat or interact educationally as student and teacher. Kaptur nods. “Okay,” she says. “A little later, we can talk about the pieces we would need to make that work.”
For most people, software programming’s social cachet falls somewhere between that of tax preparation and autism. But it’s catching fire among forward-thinking New York parents like Katie’s, who see it as endowing their children both with a strategically valuable skill and a habit for IQ-multiplying intellectual rigor. According to WyzAnt, an online tutoring marketplace, demand for computer-science tutors in New York City has doubled each of the past two years. And if one Silicon Alley–backed initiative pans out, within a decade every public-school kid in the city will have access to coding, up from a couple of thousand.
Read the rest in this week’s issue of New York magazine.
When the last Shuttle mission touched down in 2011, America’s manned space program reached a nadir. For the first time in half a century, the nation found itself without the means to launch a human being into orbit. The country couldn’t even send cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), the orbital laboratory whose construction we’d already committed $70 billion to. And so, in one of the most darkly ironic twists in aerospace history, NASA was forced to rely on its old rivals, the Russians, to launch its crews into space.
But from failure comes change, and today a new era of space exploration is dawning. NASA’s monopoly on American space travel has been swept aside in favor of a new philosophy of commercial competition. Where once the Shuttle reigned alone, a whole array of new rockets and spacecraft are coming on line. We find ourselves emerging from a dark ages to what may well be a new golden age, with entrepreneurs bringing novel ideas and approaches to a once-stagnant game. “It’s the most exciting time that the space industry has seen since the early days of Apollo,” says Andrew Nelson, chief operation officer of space-plane manufacturer XCOR Aerospace. “Everything is new. It’s really cool.”
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.
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.
“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:
#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.
You 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.