24-Year-Old Swedish Man Pilots Plane to And From the Stratosphere

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
March 13 2013 10:26 AM

24-Year-Old Swedish Man Pilots Plane to And From the Stratosphere

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Maybe you'll never travel to space, but you could make your own aircraft to send up there.

Photo By NASA/Getty Images

Meet David Windestål. He lives in Hjo, Sweden. He has a beautiful wife, Johanna, and a dog named Neo. He is 24 years old. And he just got back from flying an aircraft through the edge of space.

Of course, Windestål wasn’t in the jet. And a good thing, too. The aircraft was only about the size of a mailbox, and it crashed into a tree on return. Moments prior, the remote-controlled plane had been lifted more than 20 miles above Earth by hydrogen balloon where it could stare at the line between blue marble and black void. Once the balloon popped, the tiny jet plummeted until reentering Windestål’s range of reception where he was then able to pilot it to a more or less safe landing.

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Windestål doesn’t work for the military or the Swedish equivalent of NASA. Yet he was able to bring back ISS-like images from the great beyond using only a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of electronics sold on Amazon. His first person view (FPV) flight into the atmosphere displays the remarkable reach of hobby technology. And it raises the question: If David Windestål can pal around the stratosphere, what’s to stop common folk like you or me from kicking down the door of the gods?

Windestål’s even been kind enough to catalogue his FPV flight on RCExplorer.se, his site dedicated to remote controlled flight and discovery. (His tagline? “Exploring the RC World, One Crash At A Time …”) You’ll just need a remote-control FunJet, a GoPro camera, and an army surplus balloon full of hydrogen.

Now, the whole balloon-full-of-hydrogen thing should tip you off that this gambit is a little more dangerous than that time you made a battery out of a potato. Windestål recommends helium but writes on his blog that the noble gas is “ridiculously expensive” in Sweden (and indeed is in short supply worldwide). So he went instead with the one responsible for immolating 35 souls on the Hindenburg. Regarding hydrogen, Windestål writes, “If you don’t know what you’re doing, I highly recommend staying away from it.”

This is one of many pro-tips offered free of charge. In fact, the whole account reads as a celebration of human ingenuity. You could also call it a ballad of trial and error. Windestål spent more than two years gaining “the experience, the knowledge and the funds to finally try to make [this] dream a reality.” Spend some time on his site and you’ll see the many interesting projects that primed him for atmospheric conquest—airborne battles waged with fireworks, FPV flights over Niagara Falls, and RC tanks vs. evil balloons. (My favorite is the one where he teases about 50 alligators.)

All of which is to say, it’s still going to take some research if you want to go to the stratosphere. The average dude doesn’t know much about fuselage, battery performance, or the height at which GPS tends to crap out. Still, Windestål makes me believe that with enough time and the right message board, I too could be controlling a personal drone by sight at 100,000 feet.

Then again, such hubris is problematic—and not entirely as a reference to Icarus. If everybody and their neighbor start releasing military balloons full of hydrogen, it’s only a matter of time before a real jet sucks one in and spits it out in an international-oh-shit-style incident. A drone of unidentified origin nearly did just that in Denver last year, and we still don’t know what was spotted by an Alitalia pilot landing in New York last week. Furthermore, multiple Kickstarter projects succeeded in raising enough money for atmospheric conquest last year, one of them a group of six sixth-grade girls from Kentucky.

So if messing around in the stratosphere is the new pen-pal-letter-strapped-to-a-balloon and everyday citizens like Windestål keep paving the way for better control and expanded near-space operations, who’s going to be the one to de-throne astronaut Chris Hadfield as the coolest account on Twitter?

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.

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