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Lower, Slower, Nearer

How else to explore the vast green reef of the rain forest canopy than in an aerial bathysphere?

December 05, 2004|Margaret Wertheim | Margaret Wertheim writes the Quark Soup science column for the LA Weekly. She is the director of The Institute For Figuring, a new Los Angeles-based organization that presents science in unusual ways.

Like the iconic flyboys of "The Right Stuff," most men who take to the skies dream of going higher, faster and farther. Over the Mojave Desert this summer, Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne streaked through the stratosphere to become the first private plane to fly into space, and off the coast of California, NASA has been testing a scramjet that reaches a speed of Mach 9. Yet if the history of flight is usually told as a succession of macho extremes, it also encompasses another, decidedly more leisurely tradition: on the one hand the fast, on the other hand the buoyant. Where the former overcomes the dictates of gravity by sheer brute force, the latter makes its claim to the sky through mere lightness of being--the fleet versus the floating.

Just weeks after the historic flight of SpaceShipOne, another experimental flying machine was being put through its paces in the jungles of Guyana. Airship No. 6, a tiny two-man dirigible, is the latest iteration in a series of lighter-than-air craft designed and built by British engineer Graham Dorrington. In contrast to the record-shattering ethos of Tom Wolfe's testosterone-fueled test pilots, Dorrington fantasizes about flying lower, slower and nearer. As a lecturer in engineering at Queen Mary, University of London, he has devoted much of his life to building airships that putter through the sky at the pace of a human stroll. In 1991 he pedaled Britain's first human-powered airship from Southampton to the Isle of Wight, and in June he journeyed to Guyana to test his latest and most quixotic design.

Airship No. 6 had been specifically engineered for exploring the world's rain forest canopies. It was an enterprise at once utopian and dangerous, for Dorrington had lost an earlier ship, and a friend, in a fatal crash in another jungle. Adding to the uncertainty of its maiden flight was the presence of Werner Herzog, a filmmaker famed for his own audacious proclivities, a man who once threatened to shoot the star of a previous film and who had persuaded Dorrington to test his ship, with cameras rolling, at a location of breathtaking beauty--and high winds. That the ship would be launched in far from optimal conditions was further complicated by the fact that Dorrington had never actually flown it before.

Two thousand miles south of Cape Canaveral and an eon back in time, the primeval landscape of the Guiana Shield seems an unlikely launch site for any prototype aircraft. Hundreds of miles from the nearest city, it is beyond the reach of the power grid, the only contact with the world an intermittent satellite phone and a nearly inaudible two-way radio manned by the local park ranger, a loquacious string bean of a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of the region's unique flora and fauna. Outside the spartan tourist lodge, diamondback boas slink through the foliage, microscopic spiders spin ball-like webs of Byzantine complexity, and golden frogs, their skins oozing hallucinogenic poison, shelter in the leaves of the giant tank bromeliads. Yet amid this psychedelic biology, Dorrington's airship looks surprisingly at home. With its rotund body, or "envelope," and oversized tail fin, it resembles nothing so much as a large aerial fish.

As vast reservoirs of biodiversity, the tropical forests of the equatorial regions have been likened to coral reefs, and Dorrington has specifically designed his craft to evoke the marine world. "I wanted it to look organic," he says. "I had a number of possible designs, but I chose the one that seemed most like a fish." The theme of "organic design" is one to which Dorrington keeps returning. Though he is an engineer by training and in many ways an archetypal boy boffin--complete with Coke-bottle-thick spectacles and a tendency to engage in endless digressions on laminar flow and aerial drag--he also is in part a genuine naive artist, who rebels against the strict delineation between the sciences and the arts and who sees his idiosyncratic machines not merely as engineering prototypes but as elegant exercises in design.

This duality is reflected in his two heroes: Alberto Santos-Dumont, the pioneering Brazilian aeronaut who built the world's first airships and almost beat the Wright brothers to the first airplane, and the contemporary Belgian artist Panamarenko, whose work consists of designs and models for phantasmagoric flying machines, many of them resembling strange mechanical birds and bats.

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