The Only Thing Crazier Than a Wingsuit

[youtube=] Dan Johnson runs a very entertaining website over at, where he covers all things related to Light Sport Aircraft (the relatively new FAA category of small planes that are easier to get licensed for than regular planes).  He recently posted this rather incredible footage of a Russian man flying what basically amounts to the misbegotten offspring of a hang glider and a gyroplane. I would love to know more about this contraption and the daredevil who flew it — if he’s still alive I would consider it definitive proof of a Higher Power, and one who has  a decided appreciation for aeronautical nut jobs.

Parenthetically, I really want one of these. I wonder if the folks at Wallaby Ranch would be willing to tow me into the air?

World's Scariest Airstrip

[youtube=] I love finding features about the world’s scariest, dangerous looking airports — like this one at Travel + Leisure. The fact is, if a major carrier is running commercial service into it, it’s got to be pretty safe, no matter how scary it may look to the layman. Hell, if it’s paved it’s better than the vast majority of the bush airstrips you’ll find dotted all over the globe. And as a glider pilot, I’m used to the idea of landing in places where there aren’t any airstrips at all. So I think I’m relatively unflappable when it comes to runways.
Recently, though, I flew out of a small airstrip in Belize that had me thinking: “Holy crap!” As you’ll see in the video above, we barely made it off the ground before we ran out of runway, and as we cleared the line of trees at the end the stall horn briefly sounded, meaning we barely had enough speed to stay airborne. We were flying a small Australian bush plane from the dirt runway at Lamanai, in Belize. The good news: the runway is slated to be replaced by a new one that will be paved. The bad news: the new one will only be 1500 feet long. Yee-haw!

"Damned Connecticut" Delves into Extreme Fear

I’ve been off the grid for the last few days, reporting a story about antivirus guru and larger-than-life character John McAfee, who I’m writing a profile about for Fast Company magazine. McAfee embodies the fear-embracing mindset — given the time and the means to do pretty much whatever he wants, he chooses to push the envelope. When I first met him in the New Mexico desert, he was flying ultralight airplanes at low altitude; since then he’s moved to Central America and is trying to develop a way to use medicinal plants to fight bacterial infection.

In the meantime, the intriguing website Damned Connecticut has posted a interview that Ray Bendici did with me about how fear works in the brain. I think Ray did a really nice job of honing in on some of the more intriguing aspects of the topic.

The picture, by the way, shows one of McAfee’s workers holding a scorpion that we found scurrying around a patch of jungle where McAfee is trying to grow his newly discovered plants. Though the sting is said to be incredibly painful, the fellow showed very little fear. As for me, I was happy to keep my distance.

The Irony of Road Fear

It’s nearly upon us: the centenary of America’s first coast-to-coast road, the Lincoln Highway, conceived by entrepreneur Carl G. Fisher in 1912. That means we’re also about ready to start celebrating another major anniversary: 100 years of dreading driving on the highway.

Rich Presta, a Wisconsin therapist who specializes in the fear of driving (UPDATE: See note below), says that when he asks his patients what part of being on the road scares them the most, the most common answer is the highway. (A close runner-up is bridges.) In a sense, their loathing of the highway isn’t wholly irrational. Each year, some 5,000 people die in crashes on interstates. But Presta points out that what drives people’s fear isn’t a reasoned assessment of the risks. “Certainly, people do die on the roads every day,” he says. “But the chances of you being involved in an accident on any particular day, and it happening the way you’re imagining it in your head, is pretty darned remote.” Continue reading The Irony of Road Fear

Fear Itself? Maybe We Need More

One of the most resonant quotes of the ongoing financial crisis was actually uttered 77 years ago, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt assured Americans during his first inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

That sentiment remains the operational philosophy of the federal government. When bankers panicked last year and stopped lending money, the government stepped in to take its place. When markets looked ready to crumble, the government shored up confidence by guaranteeing trillions in private investments. As President Obama put it in his State of the Union speech last night, “We do not allow fear or division to break our spirit.”

But is fear really what we should be afraid of? Continue reading Fear Itself? Maybe We Need More

Fear of Flying Takes a Deadly Toll

Which is safer: flying, or driving? Rationally speaking, it’s no contest. Commercial air travel in the United States is incredibly risk-free. In 2008, the U. S. fatality rate was less than 1 per billion passenger trips. In comparison, America’s roads are a veritable slaughterfest, prematurely ending some 50,000 lives every year.

Unfortunately, people don’t make decisions based on pure reason. To the brain’s subconscious fear centers, flying looks like a very bad bet indeed. Trapped in a narrow metal tube, dangling at precipitous heights with no apparent mechanism to keep us there — it’s no wonder that 20 percent of the public suffers from fear of flying.

So here’s the paradox. If we allow our emotion of fear to overcome our rational decision-making, we actually put ourselves at a vastly greater risk of having those fears come true. Continue reading Fear of Flying Takes a Deadly Toll

Some Call Them Deathtraps

I’ve got a piece in the February issue of Popular Mechanics about gyroplanes, which were the exciting cutting edge of aviation back in the ’30s but have been languishing in obscurity ever since, having been upstaged by the helicopter. I first became aware of them thanks to the movie Max Max 2: The Road Warrior, which featured one of these strangely retro-futuristic craft and made it seem like the coolest thing ever. I later found out that some people consider gyroplanes fundamentally dangerous, but I decided not to let prejudice stop me from investigating deeper. Here’s a bit of video about what I found:

A Nod from The New Scientist

One of my favorite magazines, The New Scientist, has a capsule review of Extreme Fear in its latest edition. Writes reviewer Alison Motluk:

CAN understanding how fear works make it easier to manage? Jeff Wise, an outdoor adventurer and science writer, believes it can. He uses stories of real people – like Sue Yellowtail, who found herself alone with a hungry mountain lion, and Ian Thomas, who defended his house against a raging forest fire – to explore how we react to terrifying situations. Juxtaposed with these tales are explanations of what is going on in our brains and bodies when we are afraid.

Read the rest here.

How To Jump Out of an Airplane Without a Parachute. And Survive.

A fascinating article in the February issue of Popular Mechanics, about people who have fallen from airplanes at altitude and somehow managed to survive. The piece draws heavily from the amazing web site Free Fall Research Page, run by amateur historian Jim Hamilton. Along with the many astounding anecdotes about people surviving multi-mile plummets is a short paragraph about Japanese parachutist Yasuhiro Kubo, who has pioneered the amazingly bonkers pastime of jumping out of an airplane without a parachute:

The sky diver tosses his chute from the plane and then jumps out after it, waiting as long as possible to retrieve it, put it on and pull the ripcord. In 2000, Kubo — starting from 9842 feet — fell for 50 seconds before recovering his gear.

To my chagrin, I was unable to find anything about Kubo on YouTube.  (Come on, people!) Fortunately, there is video documentation of a similar feat performed by noted reckless lunatic and motocross champ Travis Pastrana, who on September 26, 2007 jumped out of an airplane over Puerto Rico without a parachute, or even a shirt, and then managed to link up in flight with a confederate who hooked him into a harness for a safe tandem landing. Here’s the footage: