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. []