For The Last Time: The Plane Takes Off!

So, after months and months of online discussion, Mythbusters Jamie and Adam put the physics where the rubber meets the road.


Almost two years ago, I (and most of the internet, it seems) saw a thought question at regarding an airplane on a giant conveyor belt. If the belt moved the exact same speed as the airplane’s wheels – only in the opposite direction – would the plane take off? Well, the answer was immediately clear to me, but that’s for the sole reason of I took several semesters of statics, dynamics, and physics in college. I knew immediately that the plane would take off, without any question. I did my best to clearly explain why this was the case in the ensuing discussion on Jason Kottke’s website1.

Mythbusters graphic

Well, last night, I (and Kottke, along with a lot of others) were vindicated as we watched a little yellow, single seat ultralight take off from a 2,000 foot long conveyor belt on a new episode of Mythbusters.

Now, as just a brief – and parenthetical – afterthought: it always feels good to be proven right. However, one of the most awesome experiences in science is when all common sense tells you one thing, but the numbers and scientific logic tell you the opposite. In that case, when a empirical result supports the unlikely or seemingly impossible, it is a marvelous and wonderful surprise. Think about all the really cool experiments you ever saw in science class or on Mr. Wizard, and I’ll bet they fit into that latter case. What you thought couldn’t happen does indeed happen right before your eyes. That very thing has made many a person fall in love with science for the rest of their lives and I sincerely hope that this experiment did the same for a lot of people last night.

Plane taking off.

In the meantime: I told you so!

  1. Kottke has really taken some ownership of this question, too. He even live-blogged last night’s episode. I, unfortunately, had to TiVo it and watch it this morning. Hence, the somewhat late post of mine. []