Improbable Wind (and Other) Propulsion Systems


Dec 15, 2021.
Deep apologies to all. My original analysis of Nov 11 had many inaccuracies.
Thanks to Jeff Roberson who pointed out a reversed force vector in the Drive Train figure. I have hopefully corrected most of the errors in this version (V19).
The propeller now rotates in the same direction as in the videos of Blackbird. I have also clarified the vector math conventions making them easier to follow.

October 2023
I’m honored to have Rick Cavallaro, Blackbird’s creator and pilot, comment on this blog.
Rick rightly points out that my simple attempted demonstration (Fig. 6) of Bernoulli’s principle, with a spoon in running water, is actually more the Coanda effect where a passing fluid is attracted to a surface and follows its contour.  I have added a correction and new photo.

Can a wind-driven vehicle go straight down wind faster than the wind speed? (FTTWDDW)  Derek Muller’s YouTube channel “Veritasium”, and the image above show Rick Cavallaro’s brilliantly designed “Blackbird” propeller-driven cart. They say it has been done. See their video

Wikipedia has the best explanation I’ve found at:

Kirk McDonald of Princeton University gives a great summary of the history of similar efforts with 98 references (PDF link):

Intuition suggested otherwise: to ‘sail’ downwind faster than the wind one would need a machine which could first accelerate from stationary up to wind speed – no problem – but then to go faster than the wind, one would have to keep accelerating from that point in time and space where the apparent wind on your craft had dropped to zero.  Sounds impossible!  

UCLA Astronomy and Physics prof. Alex Kusenko, while claiming he has significant sailing experience, lost a bet of $10,000 as witnessed by Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Alex claimed it could not be done saying that wind gusts and a higher wind speed at the prop height, rather than as measured at the cart, explained an observed momentarily high cart velocity.  I’m sorry I cannot find any comment on the outcome of the wager from Nye or Tyson. 

After much thought I suggest the following analyses might illustrate what is actually happening in a clear manner without resorting to plots of trig functions, etc.

General Physics Principles:

Figure 2

1.  A balloon in a steady wind surely only travels at exactly wind speed and exactly in the wind’s direction.
That great old movie “Around the World in 80 Days” showed a global circumnavigation of approximately 24,000 miles in 80 days (averaging about 12.5 avg. mph).  But did Niven and Cantinflas actually beat the laws of physics by doing it in (spoiler alert) 79 days, or just over 1% faster than the wind, when crossing the date line was included in their calculations?

Figure 3

2.  A balloon drifting low over a flat desert, in a 10 mph West wind, could lower a wheel-driven electrical generator (G) which could power a tow cart  (M) motor-driven by an electric motor.  But due to the second law of thermodynamics (Entropy always increases), and ever-present frictions in the generator and motor, the magnitude of the backwards (Westward direction) drag load of the generator will always be a little greater than the pulling power of the motor towards the East. As the interesting point of 10 mph balloon speed is approached the tension on the generator tow rope is eased by reducing the power generated in a vain attempt to reach 10 mph.  This results in our complex balloon actually travelling a little slower than the 10 mph speed of the West wind, showing us that you cannot go downwind faster than the wind, at least when using a balloon, with or without, electrical propulsion devices. Or could you? Think very carefully before you answer!  Remember there is a lot of kinetic energy available as the balloon passes over the ground at 10 mph, and not much of that energy would be needed to make it accelerate only 1 mph more to go faster than the wind!

3.  Energy is needed to propel a wind driven craft.  Such propulsive force can come from tapping into the kinetic energy available when there is a difference in velocity between the air and the ground (or water).  That velocity difference can come from moving air (wind) over stationary land or water, or from stationary air over a moving body of water (river or ocean stream).  A dramatic example of this latter case by Artemis Racing is shown in:  
where the Amazon River, flowing at 10 mph on a still air day, creates an apparent 10 mph wind sufficient to drive a foiling catamaran back up river (against the current) at 30 mph! 

The problem is: how can one find the potential or kinetic energy difference needed for further acceleration when a land craft is travelling straight downwind at 10 mph in a 10 mph wind? 


 Sailing Theory 

At age 16 Alen MacWeeney and I canoed the River Shannon and tributaries for a month in a homemade craft, using a bed sheet for a sail when there was wind.  We sadly discovered, as did the square rig sailors of old, that we could not sail upwind at all.  We could sail: 90 degrees across the wind “Beam Reaching”; at 45 degrees angle off the wind direction “Broad Reaching”; and straight downwind “Running”.  To make any progress in an upwind direction in a canoe or sailboat would have required a keel, or centerboard, or a good skeg, and an airfoil section sail.  The Egyptians seemed to have discovered this thousands of years ago with their elegant lateen-rigged feluccas on the River Nile, but they kept the details secret for a long time. 

Part of answer to the Blackbird question lies in the application of Bernoulli’s principle  to and airfoil section, sail-like, propeller.

From energy conservation laws: the faster air or liquid moves, then the lower its pressure becomes. For sailing, and flying, you see this principle demonstrated in the use of a curved, airfoil shape, cross-section of a wing, sail, or propeller. 

Figure 4 

Fluids (air, water, etc.) flow faster over the curved top of the airfoil shape than across the bottom when the flow is laminar, or non-turbulent.  Some think that is so the upper fluid can “catch up” with the slower medium underneath which only had to move a shorter distance across the bottom of the foil.  The faster speed of the fluid on top, perhaps surprisingly, results in it having a lower pressure according to Bernoulli.   See:    and others. 

Including an ‘angle of attack’ of 10 to 20 degrees between the airfoil section and the wind adds to the lift effect by increasing the pressure below the foil relative to the low pressure on top.  In optimum conditions this results in a force (red) which can be ‘resolved’ into two separate forces of ‘lift’ (green) and ‘drag’ (blue).

Figure 5

A flat surface could be used instead of an airfoil section but it is not nearly as effective – Look at the flat fan blades on cheap cooling fans: they create noise from turbulence and don’t move the air as efficiently. 

[Revision Needed] “A beautifully simple demonstration of the Bernoulli reduced pressure lift process is made by delicately suspending a spoon near a stream of laminar flowing (non-aerated) water from a faucet.  Move the spoon towards the stream so that the back of the spoon just contacts the water.  If the water is turbulent it will splash off the spoon and push the spoon away, but when the water flow is smooth and laminar the opposite happens: Bernoulli’s low pressure draws the spoon into the stream.  The spoon’s bowl is strongly ‘sucked’ towards the water, as indicated in the right side photo below.”


                                                              Figure 6″ 

Revision. Oct. 2023
Rick Cavallaro pointed out that the spoon needs to be fully immersed in the fluid to separate out the Bernoulli effect.  So I hung the spoon from a 12″ (30 cm) thread (to increase the sensitivity) and suspended it in a glass container full of water. The two photos below show the spoon moves 4 mm to the left, mostly from Bernoulli reduced pressure, when water flows from the faucet past the spoon.

                                                          Figure 7.

The low pressure occurs at the upper half of the spoon as the water flows faster over the longer path.  There may also be some Coanda effect at the bottom half as the water is deflected to the right.  (This is a result of Newtons Third Law where a reaction occurs for every action).

This low pressure is what keeps aircraft aloft, allows sail boats to sail upwind, and lets ice yachts travel at high speeds (up to at least 5 times the wind velocity!). 

Vector Geometry

The key to explaining Blackbird’s behavior lies in properly using vector geometry.

Vectors are simply arrows whose length and direction conveys both the magnitude and direction of an item. 

For example a wheelbarrow’s handles can be raised, by a red vector force, preparatory to moving it. Leaning forward will tilt this vector.  It can then be resolved into two forces: one (blue) lifting the handles vertically, the other (green) propelling the barrow horizontally forward:

Figure 8

The earlier diagram in Figure 5 of a wind flow speed and direction vector against an airfoil showed its lift and drag components.

Similar vector diagrams are used to add the various speeds and directions of wind, cart and propeller motions to give a resulting “Apparent Wind” on the propeller.  This is the ‘Apparent wind’  (speed and direction) a prop ‘feels’.  It is used to compute the force vector (magnitude and direction) on the prop. This vector can then be resolved into the two directions needed to explain the craft’s operation.

Velocity Vectors are easy to draw because they often represent something moving relative to the observer.  An arrow from Left to Right can depict a West wind.  The length of the arrow is proportional to its speed.  But Force Vectors can be a little more complicated.  For example, the force of someone standing on the ground can be depicted by a vertical arrow, point down. But that also implies a Velocity Vector function with the person’s feet sinking downwards into the earth!  A fuller description includes a Newtonian Reaction Vector pushing back upwards at the same time.  So a complete diagram would have an arrow pointing straight downward plus an equal and opposite upward arrow with their points meeting at ground level.

Note there is often confusion about named vector directions because of different usage conventions:  For example a ‘West’ wind is said to flow from the West towards the East.  At my house today the West wind’ is blowing air from Perrysburg Eastward to Toledo.  But at the same time a so-called ‘East current’ is seen in the Maumee river which is also flowing in the same direction Eastward to Toledo. 

By convention a vector is drawn with the beginning of the arrow at the source of the wind or force, and with the head of the arrow pointing towards the destination where a result can be seen or felt.

For vectors it helps to consider the direction an item under consideration would appear to move, relative to some other object of interest.  Think as though you were physically located on that object of interest and have the vector arrow point in the direction the item appears to you to be moving.

For example: If I am stationary on the ground in a 10 mph West wind I can show that wind graphically by vector V1.

Figure 9

It is describing the speed and direction of the Air, apparently towards the East, relative to the me on the Ground, .

On a calm day If I ride my bicycle towards the East at 20 mph I will feel an apparent wind of 20 mph from the East in my face, as shown by vector V2  Air and Ground relative to Bike.  (The air, and the ground, are moving Westward relative to me on my Bike). 

Figure 10

Now if the West  wind is blowing at 10 mph and I ride my bike Eastward as before at 20 mph, I can add the two vectors (Air to Ground) + (Ground to Bike) by connecting them nose to tail.  Draw a new vector from the first tail to the last nose (V3) to show the addition.  I will ‘feel’ an Apparent Wind V3, red of Air relative to Bike (from the East) against my face, of 10 mph.      

Figure 11

Adding an extra dimension: imagine a calm day and I sit on my stationary bike, facing East, and hold a small flag in my hand.  I move it from Right to Left, towards the North, at 10 mph then the flag will ‘feel’ a 10 mph North wind, as shown by vector (V4) below for Air relative to my Bike

 Figure 12

Now put those 3 situations together i.e. In a 10 mph West wind I ride my bike at 20 mph to the East and wave a flag from right to left at 10 mph (relative to bike)?  What direction will the flag fly in?  The answer is simply the addition of the relevant vectors, putting the tail of one at the head of the other.
                                                           Figure 13

Add vectors   V1 + V2 + V4  or Air rel. to Ground + Ground rel. to Bike + Bike rel. to Flag to get the resulting vector VA or Air relative to Flag connecting the tail of the first vector to the head of the last one.  This new vector (VA) is the Apparent Wind vector for the flag.  It shows the strength and direction of the wind felt by  the flag  i.e. about 14 mph from the NE.


Sailing Downwind Faster than the Wind 

Using known values from existing high performance craft let us look at the details of an ice yacht, land-cart, or foiling catamaran, blue triangle in the diagram below, speeding along on a NE broad reach at about 25 mph, or two and a half times faster than the wind, in a 10 mph West wind, white arrow.  

Figure 14

The velocity vectors above show that even though the sail only ‘feels’ an apparent wind of about 19 mph from the NNE, the ice yacht is traveling at a speed of 25 mph. 

The wind force vectors on the sail are shown below.  The red arrow (vector) is the resulting force from the apparent wind acting on the sail.  It can be resolved into a lateral force (blue) to the SE resisted by sharp skates on the ice, wheels on the sand, or a keel in the water, plus a forward driving force (green) which propels the craft to the NE. 

Figure 15 

The velocity vectors below show that when the craft is travelling to the NE at 25 mph, it is making progress due Easterly, straight downwind, at about 18 mph, or about 8 mph faster than the 10 mph West wind, (and at the same time it is making similar progress Northward at 18 mph). 

Figure 16 

But, of course, if the sail craft bears away and tries to sail straight downwind it would feel a direct head wind,  the sail would stall and the Bernoulli effect would no longer apply.  With a stalled sail the craft  becomes like our earlier balloon only travelling due Eastward at close to 10 mph at most and never finding the power needed to go faster. 

 A Thought Experiment

To address the main question of how to sail straight downwind faster than the wind let us imagine a (triangular shape) land cart, heading due East on the flat desert floor, with a steady 10 mph West wind blowing.  On this cart we have a hypothetical horizontal supporting beam, blue line, with a track mechanism holding an ice yacht sail (same as the one used above) vertically on a sliding track which allows the mast and sail to be moved laterally in a North-South direction relative to the cart axis.  If the sail is moved to the left, on the cart, at a speed equal to the forward speed of the cart then the sail ‘feels’, for a few moments, the exact same wind, force and direction, red, as the ice yacht sail felt, with its fixed sail, when it was travelling to the NE, in the previous case. The same red wind force on the sail is now resolved into East and South components representing the forward drive (green) and the lateral force (blue) resisted by the wheels.

Figure 17 

An observer looking down from a balloon above would see, for a few moments at least, the sail moving in exactly the same direction as the ice yacht’s sail, and therefore generating the same lift and drag vector forces. 

Figure 18

The picture above shows the initial position of the cart (in blue, left) with the sail amidships.  The later position (green), shows the cart a few moments later, moving to the right (Eastward) and with the sail moving left (Northward) on its track, while the sail traverses a NE path over the ground. 

The net driving force on the land yacht will be somewhat less than that of the ice yacht because of the energy needed to move the sail on the imaginary track.  

Rather than having the complex imaginary supporting track for the mast why not let the sail simply be the single blade of a propeller?  As this propeller revolves around its horizontal fore and aft axis the airflow will be very similar to the sails in the two cases above.  By considering a short period of time we can ignore the small change in tilt angle of the sail as it rotates in its new propeller-like configuration.  As the propeller blade rotates through its upper quadrant our overhead viewer would once again see air flowing over an airfoil similar to both the ice yacht and sand cart examples above.   Add a second blade to the prop so while the upper blade is behaving as shown above when in the top quadrant of its rotation, the other blade is in the lower quadrant and supplies a similar Eastward direction driving force, but with an opposite direction (Northward) lateral force. 

As the professor so often says, “I leave it to the student to resolve the details for the prop blades when they are travelling through the side quadrants (3 o’clock and 9 ‘-clock)”.  The answer is simple: when the prop blade (sail shape) is travelling up or down, through the side quadrants, the resultant horizontal forces will similarly drive the craft forward, while the lateral vertical drag component, upward or downward, subtracts from or adds to the craft’s weight on the ground. 

So now we can have a real cart going straight downwind (due East) at 18 mph with a propeller whose sail-shape blades move across the wind in a very similar manner to that of the fixed sail of the ice yacht travelling at 25 mph in a NE direction, in the same 10 mph West wind. Even though at 18 mph Eastward cart speed the apparent wind at the land cart body is 8 mph against it from the East, the propeller blades are still ‘feeling’ an appreciable, and useful, apparent NNE wind. 

The propeller is turned towards the apparent wind by the belt drive connecting the prop shaft and the wheel axle.  The drive force from the propeller hub provides a forward push to the top of its supporting mast, in the same manner that an airplane’s propeller ‘propels’ an airplane forward.  The forward movement of the cart over the ground drives the wheels which turn the axle and puts tension in the belt to turn the prop. 

An ice yacht, having the least drag resistance (from its skates) to forward motion of the three craft types considered, should have the greatest velocity of the three craft types considered here.  A foiling catamaran, with a similar sail, should be the next fastest given that the drag of the foils through the water would be greater than that of sharp skates on ice.  Our land-cart has low rolling resistance but it does have to supply energy from the rotating wheels to turn the prop against the apparent wind and so could be expected to have the slowest vehicle velocity of the three. 

The magic of the Blackbird rotating propeller is that the blades can ‘feel’ an apparent NNE wind of about 19 mph even though the craft is running straight downwind, Eastward, at 18 mph in our 10 mph West wind, and experiencing an 8 mph apparent headwind!

But can the Blackbird propeller generate enough forward drive power after overcoming the drag of the drive belt on the wheel axle which has to rotate the propeller against the apparent wind?   Work done is the force multiplied by the distance moved.  For the ice yacht the lateral force is simply resisted by the skates on the, with no ‘distance’ moved laterally on the ice and so no work is done. But in Blackbird work is done equal to the distance the prop is moved against the drag of the wind.  The solution lies in the force vector diagram, Figure 10 above, which shows the W-E and N-S vectors of the force on the prop.  

 Can Blackbird function in Zero Apparent Wind? 

The thought experiment above reasonably demonstrates how Blackbird could perhaps travel straight downwind faster than the wind, but to get to that velocity, if it is travelling in a straight line, and starting from a standstill, it must first accelerate from zero speed to the velocity of the wind, and then exceed it.  If the wind is 10 mph from the West then when the Blackbird has reached a speed of 10 mph to the East there will be zero apparent wind velocity as measured on the cart.  How could the propeller mechanism create a drive force in zero apparent wind?  A closer examination is needed of the cart and its operation while it accelerates straight downwind, starting at zero velocity.

Apparent Wind Direction on Blackbird and its propeller

To show the effect of wind on a sail, or on a propeller we first calculate  the direction and strength  of the Apparent Wind. Linking the 3 vectors, nose to tail, for Wind, cart and propeller motions of our land yacht needs similar attention to ensure each vector is pointing in the correct direction.
The cart (C) is moving  Eastward relative to the ground at 5 mph, in a 10  mph West wind. More importantly for our vector addition, the ground is moving Westward relative to the cart at 5 mph!  It is easy to visualize this by sitting on the moving cart and looking down at the ground.3.  The prop is connected to the wheels by the belt and is rotating CW (viewed from aft).  At the moment in time of this analysis the center of the prop blade, as it rotates over the top center, is travelling at 5 mph Southward relative to the cartAdding the vectors of: Wind relative to Ground + Ground relative to Cart + Cart relative to Prop,  gives the resultant Propeller Apparent Wind velocity and direction of 7 mph SW Wind relative to the Propeller.

Figure 19

Applying this apparent wind to the prop blade results in a force vector (F) which can be resolved into two components (Fw-e) and F(n-s). These two vectors show how the cart, not surprisingly, can operate successfully when travelling Eastward at 5 mph in a 10 mph West wind:

Cart Drive Details.

This paper uses a cart model similar to the record-making Blackbird and makes the following assumptions for ease of calculation:

  1. The wheels rotate at twice the speed (rpm)  of the propeller.
  2. The wheels have a radius of 2 units.
  3. The drive pulley on the wheel axle has a radius of 1 unit.
  4. The drive pulley on the prop shaft has a radius of 2 units so the wheels rotate at twice the rate of the propeller, as on Blackbird.
  5. The propeller blade radius is 8 units or from the center of prop area to the prop shaft is 4 units.Figure 20

Using the above assumptions we get the convenient result that when we resolve the wind force component on the prop into West to East drive (Fw-e), and N-S prop turning (Fn-s) we find that the effect of a F(w-e) drive force equal to a positive F(n-s) force on the prop will provide equal forward drive power.  If the Prop force Fn-s is negative or Northward, and equal in magnitude to the Eastward Fw-e drive then the two will exactly cancel and there will be no net drive force to the cart or its wheels.


Step by Step Detail from Zero to Twice Wind Speed Straight Downwind in a Prop Driven Land Cart 

To address the question of FTTWDDW (Faster than the wind dead down-wind) we now use the vector analysis method to illustrate the operation of accelerating , step by step, from standstill to some equilibrium speed, hopefully greater than the wind speed.

The cart’s propeller blade is continuously pitch-adjusted, by the sailor, to an angle of attack of about 15 degrees to the apparent wind to optimize the Bernoulli lift effect.  

At Zero cart speed, and 10 mph West wind the cart is facing East with the brakes on so the wheels do not turn.  The propeller is pitched straight into the wind, or ‘feathered’, roughly pointing West to East resulting in a small Fw-e.  At this stage there is also some general drag from the West wind trying to push the cart assembly to the East.
Figure 21

Releasing the brake will allow the cart to start rolling Eastward, with some CW prop rotation (viewed from astern)  as it is turned by the belt.
Adjusting the prop pitch angle will result in a wind force on the blade.  Looking down on the blade from above you can see that rotating the blade’s CCW will result in a wind force pushing on the concave side of the blade trying to  turn the propeller shaft CW (when viewed from astern).  The prop blade is pitch adjusted for a 15 deg angle of attack to the West wind resulting in a NNWW wind force on the blade (when viewed from above). At 10 mph West wind and Cart speed 1 mph to the East Figure 15 shows a small green Fw-e pushing the cart Eastward, and a significant blue force Fn-s driving the prop CW and consequently rotating the wheels to drive the cart Eastward.

Figure 22

(If the pitch were adjusted in the other direction (CW) to make the wind push against the convex top side of the airfoil then the blade would rotate CCW and drive the cart upwind.)

At 5 mph Cart speed the cart is easily driven by the green Fw-e and the blue Fn-s vector components
Figure 23

At 10 mph West wind and a Cart speed of about 9 mph Eastward the vectors resolve into a single component Fw-e pushing the prop Eastward through its hub bearings. This force on the cart structure is resisted by an equal and opposite force from the ground at the drive wheels which rotates the axle and turns the propeller CW via the belt.

Figure 24

As the cart speed reaches 10 mph the North-South Force vector flips direction and begins to add a drag force to the propeller retarding the acceleration.
Figure 25

At 15 mph cart speed it is still accelerating driven by the green Fw-e vector, even though it is being increasingly resisted by the smaller, but growing, blue Fn-s vector in a Northward direction

Figure 26

At 10 mph West wind and 20 mph Cart speed to the East the apparent wind on the cart body would come from the East and a flag on the cart body would fly straight back.  The apparent wind on the moving propeller now comes at about 22 mph from the SSE.  The force on the prop resolves into roughly equal forces: Fw-e Eastward driving the cart forward, and Fn-s Northward resisting the rotation of the prop.  As described above these two forces cancel each other out in the belt tensions resulting in no net forward drive force on the cart.  This cart arrives at an equilibrium speed of about 20 mph dead downwind to the East (twice the wind speed) with no further acceleration.  Fine tuning the prop blade area and pitch angle, drive train gear ratio, etc., could provide further acceleration.  It is noted that the full size Blackbird is recorded at travelling DDW at three times the wind velocity, 

 Figure 27

Added to the opposing force Fn-s is the drag of the whole craft running into an apparent 10 mph East wind.  So somewhere in this speed range the acceleration will cease and the craft will continue to run at a steady speed.  But it is now travelling straight downwind at about twice wind velocity.

 So does the cart wheel drive the prop, or vice versa?  I think it is a bit of both!  I’d say one component of the wind force on the prop, Fe-w, pushes the cart forward which turns the wheels which pull the belt which drives the prop.  At the same time the other component Fn-s is either assisting at speeds below wind velocity or retarding the cart at higher speeds.


  Other Thoughts 

If you are comfortable with the idea of how the device works then perhaps you should be able to appreciate what would happen in the following conditions: 

  1.  The prop has a clutch on its hub, and a brake.  Disconnect (open) the clutch, apply the brake to the prop, and then tow the craft from standstill to 10 mph Eastward in a 10 mph West wind.  Release the prop brake and the prop will just sit there – no rotation – because there is no apparent wind on the cart at 10 mph.
  2. At standstill open the clutch and release the brake. In a 10 mph West wind the prop will spin.  Tow the cart to the East at 10 mph.  The prop will eventually stop spinning, from friction, because there is no apparent wind. Similar to situation 1 above.  Now release the tow.  As the cart slows the prop will start to rotate again. With the clutch open the cart will finally stop with the prop spinning fast.
  3. In a 10 mph wind, tow the cart to 10 mph with the prop stationary, clutch open and prop brake on. At 10 mph release the prop brake, release the tow and engage the clutch.  The prop will start spinning. The cart will slow to say 9 mph because of the inertia of the prop and the energy needed to spin it up as supplied by the kinetic energy of the moving cart.  Now the prop is extracting energy from the wind speed to ground velocity difference.  As shown in fig. 18 above the system can extract useful energy and accelerate the cart to a velocity greater than wind speed!

  4.  Could there be a way to exploit the power generated by the wheel driven propeller in zero wind seeing that this was almost done when the apparent wind on the cart was zero in example 3 above?  Towing the cart Eastward at any speed, in a zero wind velocity, and then releasing it, at first sounds similar to the above situation of 10 mph cart velocity Eastward in a 10 mph wind from the West.
    Figure 28

But plotting the vectors quickly shows the apparent wind on the prop now comes from the SE.  With a 15° angle of attack the forward drive vector to the East, green arrow, is smaller than the North-South force to the North, blue arrow, and so when they pull the drive belt in opposing directions, the net drive will be negative and the craft will quickly come to a halt.

 It would be interesting to see what speeds Blackbird could attain if it started to turn towards the wind.  I have since read that Cavallero did alter Blackbird a little – he widened the axle for stability against the torque of the propeller- and reportedly travelled straight upwind at twice the wind speed.   


  Other Unlikely Propulsion Methods:

 1. Straight downwind sailing, faster than a very low wind velocity, can be done on flat water, by experienced racing windsurfers who vigorously ‘pump’ the sail back and forth.  But this is adding energy (human) from an exterior source and cannot be accepted in our case. 

2.  I remember clearly, about 45 years ago, looking with my young son at our first skateboard on the smooth varnished floor of the Algonquin Island clubhouse and wondering if there was any way it could be propelled without putting one’s foot to the ground.  I erroneously concluded that was impossible, but not long later others showed us how to do it with a “tic-tac” motion, pumping the board forward by twisting it back and forth, while simultaneously popping the front wheels forth and back. 

3.   Perhaps the hardest is to levitate oneself by standing in a bucket and pulling up on the handle (which principle may come to mind when you first hear of the Blackbird story).  But even that improbably could work, at least momentarily, by performing an energetic series of hops.  Or have I just invented a ‘Pogo Bucket’?

4.  In my year (1965) of wandering through India I did watch out for the infamous rope trick and actually met these great characters who appeared as though they might be keepers of the secret:
 Sadly I never did see the rope trick performed. 

 5. I close with my disappointment in the late but brilliant magician Doug Henning who long ago told us from the stage of Ryerson Theater in Toronto, on his return from visiting the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Switzerland, that he would soon be genuinely levitating.  He failed to truly do that. Photos similar to the one below were created of the Yogi’s followers bouncing on trampoline-like devices.  Doug tragically died too young of a liver problem which he falsely believed (according to Wikipedia) could be cured by his faith in the Maharishi’s “Transcendental Meditation” methods.




Sea-Bee  (OH-10)
V20 2023/10/02

Flying Feats

Look closely at the winged creatures around us and you’ll see many have extraordinarily athletic abilities, some of which we are trying very hard to copy with the latest mechanical drones.  Did you see the amazing formation flying, amid the regular fireworks, of lights carried by perhaps more than a hundred drones at President-Elect Biden’s victory speech on Nov 7?


Last season’s Eagle nest, nearly ½ mile away to the North on Audubon Island, is gone.  It was good for at least two years and two sets of young birds, but now it is nowhere to be seen.  We last saw it on May 1st when the leaves opened and hid it, with the two young ones who were almost ready to fly, from our view:

The tree is bare now in November and with the summer leaves fallen we can see that the nest has gone without a trace.

To our great good luck the parents seem to have decided to give Garden Island, just 150 yards away, another try. An effort there 2 or 3 years ago failed miserably.
This time, in just one month, they’ve built a nest up from nothing.  Seems that one (the male?) collects a branch in less than 5 mins and brings it back. The other (the female?) then repositions it, while he’s gone looking for another stick.  (Everyone know that men can’t properly load a dishwasher!).

The eagle prefers branches directly from a tree. (A few years ago I temptingly laid out a dozen good branches on the river bank and none were taken by any nest builders.)  Occasionally the bird clasps a tree branch which won’t break off and he is left dangling precariously, upside-down.  I was lucky enough to have the camera (iPhone) running when he came to the walnut tree right outside.  Look carefully and you’ll see the eagle first snaps off a twig.  Could it have been testing the wood to see if it was brittle enough to break easily?  If so, then the answer was ‘yes’ – he jumped onto and grasped the branch which broke under his 10 to 14 lb. weight, dropped, spread his wings and flew back to the nest.
The new nest is holding up well even though there was a 37 mph wind this week:


Other very fine fliers are the Big Brown Bats.  Twice this summer they crept into the house through a very small hole under the balcony screen door.  Alice and Pinot quickly tell us we have an early morning visitor:

I close all doors but one, leaving a rectangular loop for their flight: down the corridor, through the bedroom, and into the other end of the corridor.  At one end of corridor the balcony door is open, but at that point they are turning on their circuit.  No combination of indoor and outdoor lights on and off will induce them to turn the other way and leave.

Alice watches it fly round and round, never bumping into me or the walls, until we are all exhausted and a bat finally lands on a wall.

At that point you can easily pick them up in a towel and take them out before Pinot closes in.  I know: I should wear gloves and a bee suit, but it is 3:00 am.  The good news is I can see no sign of the ‘white nose syndrome’ which is badly hurting so many bat species.


A beautiful late summer sight is the vertical flight of a bunch (sometimes hundreds) of miniscule gnats who swarm on a warm evening, presumably in a wild mating dance?  Also hard to photograph, but watch carefully and you’ll see individuals rising and falling.  Even a gust of wind only temporarily disturbs the flying formation.  How do they navigate?  Pheromones may be attracting them back to the spot, even though wind must surely carry away any scent.  How do they navigate in 3D?  I never see them bump into each other.


One day on the Portage River we found a 2D version of the 3D gnat swarm.  These magnificent water striding bugs were having their pre-start maneuvers to a regatta like no other.  Turning and swerving, hardly making a dent on mirror smooth water, they somehow gain traction for accelerating and braking without penetrating the surface tension skin of the river.  I switched the movie to slow-motion but can hardly see a ripple in the water from their feet.  What is their rhyme or reason?  Perhaps they’re just having fun?



Thoughts from Totality or Seeing the Only Star We Can Truly ‘See’

The Solar Eclipse of 21 August 2017

Starting at 5:00 a.m. we drove South: 415 miles in 8 hours. Two days before Google Maps had said it could have been done in 6 ½ hrs. (without the Eclipse traffic).  We used Google Maps to tell us how bad the traffic jams were, and to watch the developing Infra-Red and visible satellite view of the sky so we could attempt to avoid clouds at our destination.

– there was disturbed weather (colored areas on the map above) to the West of our path but we found a lovely little public park in Bowling Green KY, just 6 miles inside the totality path and just short of the Tennessee border (a white X marks the spot in the map above). They were having a very friendly eclipse party there and happily had room for us on the grass and under the trees.  That was fortunate because the highway police were making great efforts to prevent people from stopping on the hard shoulders of the interstates.

The eclipsing moon was just starting its path across the sun when we arrived under clear blue skies.  As during the annular eclipse I’d seen decades ago in Toledo, I once again felt slightly uneasy as an ever increasing greyness of the sunlight became more apparent.  It was like someone very slowly sliding a dimmer switch to our prime source of light (and life), but with a steadily increasing speed.  The change in light quality is very different from that in our daily sunsets.  The typical evening setting sun has a warmth to its reducing light.  During the eclipse there was a coldness to the illumination as it dimmed – I tried rubbing my eyes to fix it.

The easiest watching tool was my bird spotting scope on a tripod.  A science school teacher from Illinois took over focusing and tracking the moving image on a white screen, while I worked on mirrors and cameras:

My straw hat made more pinhole images on my collar and on the telescope screen when I looked down on it:

The ‘pinhole mirror’ was a 3 inch (75 mm) square sample of one quarter inch (6 mm) thick front surface mirror: 80% reflection Pilkington Mirropane™. It has incredible float glass optical flatness.  Taping over half the sample provided a bright reflection light to allow easy steering of the mirror, while the exposed 1/16 inch (1.5 mm) top left corner of the taped half, provided a ‘pinhole mirror’ image alongside – all it needed was a screen.

The smaller the pinhole – the sharper the image, but also the fainter.  The further back the mirror is from a white projection screen – the larger the image, but the harder it is to hold the mirror steady.
(Next time I should put the mirror on a pan/tilt head on a tripod, and incorporate an operating iris diaphragm, if I can find one).

Both images attracted lots of attention as the light inexorably dimmed.

Meanwhile John Muggenborg in Brooklyn (see Muggphoto on Instagram) had amazing results with his similar front surface mirror, just under one inch square.  He had the great idea of fixing the mirror 200 feet (50 meters) away and shifting his screen to track the moving image.  His screen was a beautifully effective open box, dark on 4 sides and white at the back:

Susan spotted Venus brightly shining even though the sun was only about 90% covered at the time (near the top right corner in the photo below):

And in the lobby of his Vancouver apartment, Keith projected an image from his small front surface mirror sample, with a hole in a piece of paper over it to reduce the aperture, onto a screen to delight the residents and guests.

Then with an alarming suddenness, and no sound from the sky (apart from people’s cries in the park), the sun went out!

The Corona was too dim to see through the very dark eclipse glasses, and yet it felt too bright to try my binoculars to search for corona details.  Rushing with camera and iPhone camera in manual overdrive to try to get an appropriate exposure at full 20 x zoom using new add-on lenses, while dripping sweat on the equipment, I did get the following with full zoom on a Canon G-10.

The corona was too bright to see details.  It looks much better in digitally enhanced images as in the APOD site:

In the excitement I forgot to look through polaroid filters but doubt they would have shown anything.

One minute, 10 seconds later into the darkness, a diamond ring burst into view with a startling brilliance – it was the way kids might think that diamonds should appear if all the advertisements were true – the ‘stone’ in the ring was bright as an arc welders spot.  You could not look at it even if you tried.

My iPhone could only get:

I don’t seem to have burnt out any receptors in the iPhone but it must have been close!

Then 90 minutes of slow and steady return to the sky we once knew.


So we clearly saw that the overhead sun, and the moon, are truly circular and most probably spherical.  Our sun is the only star we can truly ‘see’, meaning whose shape we can ‘discern’ or ‘discriminate’.  All the other stars in the sky are so far away that their images, even through the best telescope, do not even cover ONE pixel in a camera.

The popular images of star fields seem to show big, medium and small size stars, but those images are ‘false news’.

The big, bright white circles are simply relatively close stars (more than 30,000,000,000,000 miles (5 light years) away).  The reason we see them ‘big’ in the camera is that their light is so incredibly bright that even though it is only shining on part of one pixel receptor, it reflects off it and overexposes many pixels around it.  (And, of course, the horizontal and vertical ‘spikes’ coming off the brighter stars are telescope reflections/refraction side effects and don’t really exist!)

So we cannot say for sure, from observation at least, that stars (other than our sun) are not square ﬦ , triangular Δ, or even star shaped   ҉ . . But now we have seen our overhead sun to be circular ⃝    and from some elementary astrophysics we can now safely assume that most stars really are spherical!


Spare a thought for the exoplanet hunters. They use this eclipsing method we just saw, along with others, to find planets around distant stars.  But the geometry never allows for ‘totality’ to be seen from distant earth, so those astronomers must work with only a very faint effect of partial eclipsing.

Perhaps my biggest surprise was that before the occulting moon had fully moved out of alignment with the sun, the very friendly eclipse watchers in the park packed up and drifted off – like leaving a great movie before the credits have even played.

We waited for the credits to roll, or the bloopers to play (none did), ate the strangest BLT ever for dinner and then joined the crowd for the drive home.

Well, if the traffic was heavy as people converged over 2 days on the 100 mile or so band of totality across the country, when the show was over, they ALL went home at once.  Google Maps traffic showed a wonderful screen of a network of red lines (choked roads) heading North and South away from the East-West path of totality.  Sadly we were too emotional to think of taking a screen-shot but Leslie and Glen, watching their syzgy just a little South of us in Tennessee did get one of the ‘eclipcalyptic’ traffic (Thank you):The drive home took 9 hours, but we’ve already started making plans to watch the next one!