General Aviation: A Shark Tale

Monomoy IslandLike a Submarine beneath the surface poised and ready to strike, the 15 foot, 2000 pound behemoth searches for prey. With cunning and grace, she lurks with all senses deployed—her eyes scanning the surface, her nose dissecting particles of water for a familiar scent. While her sense of smell is thought to rival that of dogs and bears, all senses work in harmony as she reserves her secret weapon—electroreception. This unique biological adaption enables her to hone-in with RADAR precision. Always on the prowl, she soon selects her target. She plots her course so as to remain hidden from view until the last possible second with small adjustments for heading and AOA; setting up behind and below her mark. Using depth to remain hidden, she cruises swiftly and silently determined to deliver a single devastating blow. As she approaches the underbelly of her victim she increases her intercept angle to twenty, thirty now forty degrees. Quick oscillations of her powerful tail produce an accelerating burst of speed. Ascending from darkness into light her seeming shadow emerges from the depths; her mouth ajar. Accelerating from three to nearly twenty knots and without warning she explodes from the water’s surface; momentum elevating her aloft. Her now gaping jaws clampdown—SPLASHHHHH—she reenters the water seemingly vanishing. A murky red hue disperses throughout the scene, her brutal objective nearly complete as she then returns to claim her quarry.

Reminiscent of scenes from the 70’s classic “Jaws”, this brash portrayal of one of nature’s apex predators is an otherwise routine occurrence in certain – special – locations around the globe. One of these presumably newly reclaimed locations is not far from where I reside, in the waters surrounding Chatham (Cape Cod), MA. Quite naturally as a pilot and shark enthusiast, this is where I enjoy a great deal of time leisure flying!

As a first order of conduct and #savethesharks devotee I must insist upon the reality that sharks, while maybe intimidating, are in fact NOT out to eat humans! My riveting portrayal is merely that of a White Shark hunting a common food-prey item from a family of semiaquatic marine mammals known as Pinnipeds (Seals, Sea Lions, and Walruses)—thanks Wikipedia, Discovery Channel, Nat GEO, PBS and all of the TV stations I’ve ever watched educational programs relating to the marine science ;) .

Cruising the waters off the southern New England coast in summer months, White Sharks are known to frequent the islands and the Cape, and increasingly so. They are attracted by the throngs of seals making a decisive comeback post regulatory protections that prevent us land-lovers from hunting them; to the angst of many fisherman, so I hear.

Apart from my suggestion for a memorable scenic flight, you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you about sharks in New England as a part of an aviation blog. So to add to your confusion, I’ll assure you that where the sharks go, the Scientists follow. Now, I’ve made the uneducated assumption that like normal people, marine scientists’ time is a valuable commodity and with that comes the costs of chartering a boat to take them where the sharks are (in addition to all of the scientific stuff they tend to lug around like cameras, computers, tagging equipment, and a Swiss Army Knives). Still not satisfied with my connection!? Okay, well for those of you who have never been fishing before, they call it that for reason; there is no guarantee of catching anything, let alone savvy camera shy sharks (say that five times fast!). Therefore, not unlike those of us from the Corporate world, scientists (and/or their savvy boat Captains) realized general aviation offers a unique vantage from which their ability to quickly locate these sneaky leviathans is enhanced.

One outfit who regularly employs said creativity is the crew of the F/V Ezyduzit, aka Cape Cod Shark Hunters. Well known for their work with Dr. Greg Skomal, Marine Fisheries Biologist (Mass Department of Fisheries) and multiple episodes featured on the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week”; Pilot George Breen flying in his firebrick red Super Cub accompanies his comrades with an all-out aerial-visual assault on all things aquatic. Up and down the coast he meanders, looking for signs of life or predation. As the scientists and crew follow the sharks, the sharks follow the seals, so fish spotting aviators often focus their attention on the vast areas of water adjacent to large congregations of seal. Over an impromptu phone interview last summer George admitted that some days prove monotonous, however (and in my own words), a bad day FLYING around searching for sharks is akin to a bad day fishing in Florida—still a great day anywhere else! Now while opportunities like this are hard to aspire to this is just one unique example of how GA enhances marine sciences locally. From aerial fish spotting over Narragansett Bay, to tracking Whale migrations down the Atlantic coast for the Boston Aquarium, GA helps pave the way for a multitude of research projects.

Now turning full circle, it turns out that sharks are to aviation science, what aviation is to STEM based sciences. I recalled reading about some institute studying shark skin as means to improve lift and fuel efficiency. In case you are one of the few who don’t watch Shark Week, shark skin is covered in reverse-teeth like plates, giving it a rough texture when dragging your fingers forward against it. These plates are referred to as Denticles. Naturally I Googled the project to see what I could find and sure enough the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing in Bremen, Germany has developed an innovative coating system for large surface structures, such as airfoils, to reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency as part of the Clean Sky initiative. Apparently the basic principles of denticles, refined over millions of years of evolution, are not only eco-friendly (reducing emissions) but provides for de facto cost savings—now that’s cool! So as you can see, my love for sharks and aviation is forever intertwined!!

With New Englanders gearing up for AOPA’s Regional Fly-in at the Plymouth Municipal Airport (PYM) in Plymouth, MA on Saturday, July 12, there is plenty to be excited about. As AOPA also looks to promote the local community, whether you fly-in, drive-in, or arrive via marine vessel, the chance to see one of nature’s rare and beautiful creatures from a uniquely safe vantage is only a hop, skip, and/or jump from the festivities in Plymouth. Just please remember to be courteous and give-way to our friends like George, out their working the shores in an effort and learn more about these important animals.

Tweet to @AOPAEastern to tell me about unique flying jobs near you!

National Wind Turbine Map: A new Pilot Resource

As one of the fastest growing forms of renewable energy, wind turbines are sprouting up all over the country.  On a recent airline flight across the country, I was blown away to see areas in northern Texas with rows of wind-turbines that went on for miles—some of which included well over of a hundred turbines. Now I know why they call them wind farms!  This technology is increasingly popular in rural Alaska, where the cost of fuel to generate electricity is through the roof expensive.  As with all good things, they come with potential impacts.  As pilots, wind turbines provide several challenges: initially as obstructions we have to avoid during flight.  If located too close to airports, they interfere with instrument approaches resulting in higher minimums and reduced access.  Finally, when the wind  blows they represent a source of turbulence, which we still have much to learn about (more on that later).

Interface to the Interactive Wind Farm Map, starts with an overview of where towers are found around the country.

Interface to the Interactive Wind Farm Map, starts with an overview of where towers are found around the country.

Locating individual wind turbines
Recently the US Geological Survey has given us a new tool to locate wind turbines, on a nation-wide basis.  A new interactive mapping application, provides access to a database that not only shows us where wind turbines are found, but records their height, blade length, and other information on a tower-by-tower basis. Prior to this, while some states captured the locations of individual wind turbines, there was no uniform database that provided this information across the country.  Starting with the FAA’s Digital Obstruction File (through July 22, 2013), a USGS team led by Dr. Jay Diffendorfer located over 47,000 turbine sites, verifying individual tower locations with high-resolution satellite imagery. This data base gives us a much better way to find individual tower locations, with a location accuracy estimated to be within 10 meters.

While fewer in number, wind turbines are sprouting up across Alaska.

While still few in number, wind turbines are sprouting up across Alaska.

A row of wind turbines just outside Unalalkeet, on the west coast of Alaska. According to the USGS interactive map, they have a total height of 156 ft. tall

A row of wind turbines just outside Unalalkeet, on the west coast of Alaska. According to the USGS interactive map, they have a total height of 156 ft. tall

Understanding impacts
This database is designed to support research into environmental effects on both critters that fly, and wildlife habitat.  But these data may also be useful in the future to project the impact of down-wind effects on general aviation airports, which is still an evolving research topic.  A recent study at the University of Kansas has shown that the turbulence from a wind turbine extends further as wind speed increases, up to 3 miles in some cases.  This and the potential increase in cross winds could be a significant impact for small aircraft at GA airports.  Hopefully, more work will be done to quantify these conditions, leading to improvements in the FAA’s obstruction review process, which today only takes into account the height of an obstruction above ground when air space reviews are conducted.

Provide feedback
All maps are only as current as the date used to make them.  This data set incorporated information from FAA’s obstruction file as of last July.  And if you come across wind turbines that aren’t in the database, please capture what information you can and send an email with the location to jediffendorfer@usgs.gov.

Thanks to this effort, we have a better way to learn where wind turbines are located in the areas where we fly!