Hence, today's ride with the stopwatch. "You can get numbers like rate of climb from a plane's operating handbook," he explains. "But not things like roll rate, so those are harder to verify. In the past, it's turned out to be hard to correctly model roll rates in the Cessna 172, because the flaps are hinged at the top rather than the middle, and that reduces efficiency."
Sure enough, when we perform the same tests we ran in the air on the computer back in Meyer's office, most match up: length of takeoff roll, rate of climb, etc. But the roll rate is twice what it should be. "I'm going to have to think about that," Meyer says unhappily.
When you first meet Austin Meyer, two things become immediately apparent. First, he's incredibly hyperactive. His standard
outfit of blue jeans and spiffy new Nikes
makes him look like a superannuated teen-ager, but he talks like a deaf traveling salesman: loud, fast and with monomaniacal purpose. When he plops his 6-foot-3 body down at his desk and talks on the phone, he spins around and around at 20 rpm, reversing direction every few minutes.
You also can't miss that he's an aviation nut. The garage of his suburban house is half taken up by the wing of a Glassair kit plane. In his living room sit the two halves of the unassembled fuselage. Posters of military jets and experimental aircraft hang on the wall. Meyer has aviation in his blood. One of his uncles was Leighton Collins, the founder of AirFacts magazine and a pioneer in aviation safety. When Meyer was 12, Collins let him fly an early mechanical flight simulator that he kept in his cabin in the North Carolina woods. "It was just a little panel with six or eight instruments in it, and gyros that make the things move and spin," says Meyer, "but it's what got me interested in flying."
Meyer took his first flying lesson at 15 and got his pilot's license at 17. In September 1988, at age 19, he sat in the computer room of Carnegie Mellon University playing with Microsoft's Flight Simulator and wondered if a more sophisticated program might serve as a training tool—his pilot's license was becoming expensive to maintain. By the end of the night, he had cobbled together a primitive version of X-Plane: a single horizontal line that moved up or down, depending on how you moved the mouse. "I got hooked that first night," he says. "I've been obsessed with it ever since."
His manic energy had found its conduit—a problem complex and promising enough for him to spend a lifetime chewing it over. Building the perfect flight simulator became a holy grail. At the heart of Meyer's creation lies a powerful technique based on blade
element theory. Formulated in the 19th century as a way to analyze rotor and propeller dynamics, this theory allows one to split each segment of a rotating airfoil into minuscule pieces, then sum the forces exerted on each. Meyer expanded the technique's power by applying it to an aircraft's entire surface, treating the wings, flaps, fuselage, empennage and ailerons as if they were slowly rotating rotor blades. The program sums the net dynamic effect over the entire airframe and repeats the calculation as often as 100 times per second.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.