Kenora to Calgary

Our trip is off to a fairly good start. I’m writing this from our Calgary hotel room, and my brother is safely in Kenora, cat-sitting with all his might.

The flight was uneventful, and the threat of rain in Calgary abated for our arrival. Once again, I did not recognize either pilot. I figure nearly five percent of WestJet pilots are personal friends/former co-workers, but they must all conspire to avoid flying the trips I have tickets on.

Cab-fare from airport to hotel was steep, (>$50) and the cabbie dropped us at the wrong entrance.

We had identified some nice restaurants downtown, but transportation looks to be a challenge.That means we’ll be looking for something within walking distance. Hats off to When Words Collide for providing a map of restaurants and stores close to the Delta South. I plan to post a Dinner Debriefing, but first we have to figure out where we’ll go.


When Words Collide

When Words Collide is Calgary’s big writer’s convention in August and it’s strong on Speculative Fiction. I wanted to go last year, but it sold out while I was waiting to see if a health issue was going to be a problem. This year, I not only get to go, I get to be a presenter!

I’m taking An SF Writer’s Glossary of Alternative Aviation on the road. Before I heard of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, I had the Glossary in mind as a talk/slide show to introduce other authors to some of aviation’s ugly ducklings. I wasn’t sure Calgary would take me on, as I have never attended before and don’t know any of the organizers. It seems the concept strikes them as original, so I’m in.

I have about thirty types of aircraft to talk about, and a one-hour time-slot to do it in. Subtract set-up time and a few minutes to get everyone seated and introduce myself, and allow ten minutes for questions, and I’ll have less than ninety seconds to talk about each type of flying machine, what it does best and badly, what kind of technology and infrastructure are needed to build and fly it, how it has been used in Spec Fic before, and what it can bring to a new story in terms of plot or worldbuilding.

I’d better start rehearsing to see how much I’ll be able to fit in. I don’t want to gallop through it- I’d like time for a weak joke or two. One thing I learned from the A to Z Challenge was that doing it in alphabetical order is not only practical, it actually lends itself to working from the simple to the complex. Many of the mash-up combination aircraft fall neatly into place after the simpler base concepts are introduced.

It’ll be a great way to meet people, and judging from the roster, quite a lot of friends and acquaintances are going to be there too. My own editor, Dr. Robert Runté, is a Guest of Honour, for instance. I’m stoked.


ZZeppelin: Properly, Zeppelin is a trade name of the company of the same name. However, their brand has become somewhat genericized, and is often used to refer to rigid airships of the kind they pioneered, even if built by someone else. Historically, Zeppelin not only built the two largest airships ever, the hydrogen-filled Hindenberg and Graf Zeppelin II, they also partnered with Goodyear to build the two largest helium-filled airships in history, the USS Macon and USS Akron. All in all, Zeppelin constructed 130 airships, and a successor company, Zeppelin NT is still building airships in the twenty-first century. Fun footnote: the first airline (yes, the first airline ever) was DELAG, and they began passenger service with Zeppelin airships in 1910.

Tech Level: The first powered flight was made in a steam-powered dirigible in 1852, although the vessel could barely cope with a light breeze. Big rigid airships are a staple of Steampunk, although actual Zeppelins, at least the later ones, had diesel engines, so on technical grounds would more accurately fall into Dieselpunk. However, one reason airships are often featured in Steampunk has to do with their individuality. Like ocean liners, airships were one-offs, rather than mass-produced like, say, Boeing airliners. For more on the difference between Steampunk and Dieselpunk, see this blog post by my dieselpunk writing friend, Lindsay Kitson, or this one by Jason Sheehan. With airships, bigger is better: as they grow, their volume (and therefore lifting ability) rises sharply. A very large airship could carry such massive items as steam engines and coal for a long journey, or solar cells and huge batteries to fly at night, so both steampunk and solarpunk are possible.

Appeared In: Brand-name Zeppelins made multiple appearances in Indiana Jones movies. The Golden Compass, and many other Steampunk works, featured rigid airships of similar design.

For Your Plot: Rigid airships have bad history with thunderstorms, and early airships had unheated passenger cabins that were freezing cold due to the altitude. There must be a plot development or two there. Otherwise, airships are a grand way to factor aviation into alternative world-building, and you don’t have to stick with neo-Victorian.

Young Pilots

YYoung Pilots: Up to now, I’ve focused on unusual aircraft, and taken the pilots for granted. As you do. However, there’s one class of pilot that I feel deserves special mention as an aspect of alternative aviation: children. Kids can do amazing things, and aviation is not excluded. Probably the most famous juvenile aviator was Vicki Van Meter, who started flying when she was ten, and began racking up records at eleven, when she became the youngest pilot to fly across America in 1993. She crossed the Atlantic the next year at the age of twelve. The Guinness book people subsequently closed all their categories for youngest pilots on the grounds of undesirable risk. Even so, attempts were made, and not everyone was lucky. Infamously, Jessica Dubroff died in a crash at the age of seven. At the time, her instructor was at the controls, but Jessica had received over thirty hours of flight training. After her accident, a law was enacted to prohibit underage trainees (that is, kids too young to hold a pilot’s licence or student pilot permit) from making record attempts. More recently, Haris Suleman, a seventeen year old with a freshly issued pilot licence, died while attempting to fly around the world for charity. I don’t think the problem is the youth of the pilots. I think it has more to do with the pressure of trying to make challenging flights to set records, with inexperience as a contributing factor.

Tech Level: Some aircraft are much easier to fly than others, and the simplest ones are not likely to be the ugly ducklings I’ve been featuring in this glossary. Basic training aircraft work best for this sort of thing. For genre fiction, let’s say Young Adult and Middle Grade.

Appeared In: I’ve already mentioned Emergence, by David R. Palmer, which features protagonist Candida Maria Smith-Foster as the eleven year old pilot of an ultralight. In Windhaven, by George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle, Flyers come of age and take their parent’s strap-on wings at the age of thirteen. I researched this topic for my own SF novel, in which glider pilots have to be light, and girls are recruited at fourteen or so. Release of Avians is scheduled for 2017.

For Your Plot: All the thrills of alternative aviation, plus the added risks that come with inexperience. There’s an old saying that there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots. Reverse engineer that, if you like.


XX-Planes: Experimental aircraft tested by US government bodies like NACA, (which later became NASA) and the US Air Force. There have been over fifty X-planes. Wikipedia has a full list, but here are some of the more notable ones:

X-1 was the first plane to exceed the speed of sound in level flight, with Chuck Yeager at the controls in 1946.

X-2 was first to exceed Mach 3 in 1952.

X-6 would have been the nuclear-powered bomber, if it had flown on reactor power. Instead, the program was cancelled in 1957.

X-13 was a VTOL jet that stood on its tail: 1955

X-14 was a VTOL jet that used vectored thrust instead: 1957

X-15 Exceeded Mach 6 and achieved spaceflight by reaching an altitude of more than 100 kilometers in 1963.

X-18 was a tiltwing: 1959

X-19 was a tandem tiltrotor (a tiltrotor and a quadrotor!): 1963

X-22 was a ducted fan quadrotor/tiltrotor in 1966.

X-49 was a gyrodyne, a helicopter with a (ducted pusher) propeller to go faster: 2007

Other X-planes had swing-wings, forward swept wings, no wings, rotors, lifting bodies, ramjets and scramjets. There are lots of different ways to get something into the air. Some of them have to be seen to be believed, and in a few cases, even a photograph leaves me wondering, “could that thing really fly?”

Tech Level: Mostly high to very high, although there’s an autogyro and a sailplane on the list. Genre-wise, it’s a mixed bag, with lots of candidates for Military SF and a few that best belong in Alternate History.

Appeared In: Spaceplanes have been a stock SF item since before they existed. Other machines on the X-plane list have probably not found a home in Spec Fic. Yet.

For Your Plot: I think some of the weirder classes of aircraft on this list could lend a nice twist to worldbuilding. Which pretty much sums up how I feel about Alternative Aviation in general.


WWingsuit: A parachutist’s jumpsuit with wings comparable to a flying squirrel’s. As early as the 1970s, some skydivers used “swoop cords” to tauten their jumpsuit from wrist to ankle, increasing their surface area and reducing their terminal velocity. The wingsuit takes this idea and runs with it. Wingsuits don’t have a very good glide ratio, but they do make lateral progress. Thrillseekers push it to the limit by flying down mountainsides. A parachute is usually used for a safe landing, but there is a video of one guy landing unhurt on a gigantic pile of cardboard boxes, so it’s only a matter of time.

Tech Level: Low, actually. Like parachutes, all you really need are fabric, a needle and thread. Fatally steep learning curve for the early adopters, though. The wingsuit is suitable for pre-industrial genres like Clockpunk, Time Travel and Alternate History, and it could also be at home in Military SF or Space Opera.

Appeared In: Umm, Rocky and Bullwinkle? And don’t try to say that Rocky was a real flying squirrel- he was a talking cartoon flying squirrel. That’s fiction. And speculative. Not good enough? How about The Man Who Fell to Earth, with David Bowie in the lead role? An awesome opening sequence shows him streaking down through the atmosphere to crash into a lake.

For Your Plot: Thrilling scenes where your hero has only seconds to choose a tolerable landing zone. Plenty of potential for death. How about a chase scene?

Vacuum Airship

VVacuum Airship: A hypothetical kind of aerostat, or lighter-than-air flying machine. This one, instead of displacing air with a lighter lifting gas such as helium, has a rigid hull “filled with vacuum.” Okay, that’s a silly way of putting it. The air is pumped out while the hull retains its volume. Just in case you think the A to Z Challenge has driven me crazy and I’ve become so desperate at the tail end of the alphabet that I’ve started making stuff up, here’s a link to the Wikipedia article. Naturally, a nylon or silk envelope would simply collapse, so you need something really light and strong to make a rigid vessel out of. Titanium probably couldn’t do it. Futuristic materials such as graphene might work, but what you really want is an airtight force-field. Then you build a keel with a control cab and some propellers, and just create an air-displacing vacuum volume hull above you as you go. Big load? Crank up the volume. Between cargo-hauls? Shrink it down to a streamlined shape just big enough to support the permanent mechanical parts and fly fast to your next job. For extra points, shape the vacuum hull to generate lift: an airship that does this is called a dynastat. With force-field tech, you could alter the shape of the dynastat on the fly for optimal efficiency and as you sped up and increased aerodynamic lift, you could actually shrink the vacuum hull down a little. I want one.

Tech Level: Extremely high. Might work as Solarpunk. Best suited to Far Future or Space Opera.

Appeared In: Nothing that I know of. Illuminate me.

For Your Plot: On the plus side, it would be adjustable to fly on almost any planet with an atmosphere, so it would make a great scout ship for your intrepid team of exoplanet explorers. On the minus side, a power failure would be a downer.