In 2010, 36.8 million flights crossed the world’s skies carrying 2.4 billion passengers. But these International Air Transport Association statistics only record commercial flights. They don’t include those made by a makeshift plane flying above Mianyang, Sichuan, China, with Wang Qiang, 35, inside. A former hair-dresser, Wang Qiang sold his barbershop to focus on his fantasies of flight. His aircraft is his dream machine, but it could send him to an early grave.
In 2010, 1,115 people died worldwide in 130 air accidents, according to Geneva-based Aircraft Crashes Record Office, and 13,370 people have died on flights since 2000. As bad as these figures might sound, Ascend, a leading aviation-information organization, puts this at a rate of one fatal accident for every 1.3 million flights. Flying is still the safest way to travel.
Unless that is, you decide to fly with Wang Qiang, whose aircraft – Wang Qiang No. 2 – is made from pieces of scrap metal and was manually assembled with makeshift tools. Wang is the untrained pilot of this unpredictable crate, which can fly up to three kilometers at 120 kilometers an hour.
“How can I describe the feeling of flying?” says Wang. “It is something like a stifled joy. I enjoy flying, but I can’t relax too much because of the safety factor.” He has already built two aircraft: Wang Qiang No. 1 and No. 2, and has spent over 30,000 yuan (US$4,600) on his hobby. “Everyone knows it’s no joke to make a plane, so all the folk inventors like me in China – I know there are more than 100 of us – build our aircraft very carefully. As far as I know, there are very few air crashes. Just isolated accidents like the time my fellow villager broke his legs on a paramotor – but that doesn’t count as an airplane.”
I cannot give a reason for why I want to fly. Maybe this is just how human beings evolve: we ride horses, ride bicycles, drive cars, and then we fly an airplane. I fly as best I can. It’s my dream, my joy. It’s pretty much my life.
Wang Qiang, 35, Mianyang, Sichuan, China
Wang began in late 2007, working every day, for eight months, on his plane. He first sketched a plan, before heading off to the junkyard.
A Yamaha 250 motorcycle provided him with an engine, and he made do with sheets of aluminum alloy for the wings. Wang cut, hammered, glued and, finally, flew. After his first test flights in 2009, he realized that his survival was going to be an issue. He made the controls less sensitive, the frame sturdier, and realigned the wings to make stalling less likely. He also began to see the need for a parachute.
Ways to stay up in the air:
This homemade airplane can carry Wang Qiang three kilometers at 120 kilometers an hour, running on high-performance (but environmentally unfriendly) 93-octane gasoline. It may look like a death trap, but Wang Qiang No.2 has a flawless safety record. So far.
Should Wang Qiang No.2 have a problem, this device could save its pilot’s life. A standard parachute will reduce falling speed from a fatal 190 kilo-meters an hour to a survivable 29. Around the world, 18-30 deaths occur annually from parachute failure.
The 1928 LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin airship could transport 60 people 9,900 kilometers at 128 kilometers an hour. Airships fell from grace after the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, although they were relatively safe, with 364 deaths on flights between 1919-1944. They may be the future of low-energy air travel.
Fueled with propane, and carried by the wind, hot air balloons travel an average of 16 kilometers in a one-hour flight – the same distance as the average commute in the UK. They cause two fatalities a year in the USA.
This NASA research vehicle never made it to space, but it did almost kill Neil Armstrong on a test flight. Fueled by hydrogen peroxide (which doesn’t require air to burn), it could travel 1,800 meters vertically at 64 kilometers an hour.
From the pages of COLORS #82 - Shit.