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9 Lost and Found Airplanes

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You might think that an airplane would be a pretty difficult object to lose, but there are still large areas of wilderness on our planet where planes can be hidden for decades. On rare occasions they are found again, against all odds. Over the weekend, I saw an article headlined Remains of Early 1900s Plane Found in Antarctica. Wow, I thought, that's a long time for a plane to be lost! In fact, it was the first plane ever taken to Antarctica, during an expedition in 1912. But the real story is not what I first thought. For one thing, the plane didn't fly to Antarctica -it was hauled there. And it wasn't lost all that time; it had last been seen in the 1970s. Still, it is a rediscovered plane, and so fits in with stories I had already collected about lost and found airplanes.

1. The Air Tractor

Australian explorer Douglas Mawson led a 1912 expedition to Antarctica and took along a 1911 Vickers single-engine plane. Their plans were not to fly the plane, which had wing damage, but to use it to tow equipment. It was used in this manner until the harsh conditions left it unusable and then the "air tractor" was abandoned. There the plane sat for decades, not worth the expense of moving it. In the 1970s, researchers took pictures of it nearly encased in ice, then it was not seen again -until New Years Day, 2010. A team from the Mawson's Huts Foundation had been looking for the plane for three years, along with other artifacts of early Antarctic exploration. A season of low ice and a very low tide at Commonwealth Bay on Friday exposed the few parts of the plane that survive, right where it was abandoned. The parts were photographed and then taken for examination still submerged in sea water while the foundation decides the best way to preserve the air tractor in the name of history.

2. Lady B. Good

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A US Army Air Corps B-24D named Lady Be Good was part of a bombing raid on Italy on April 4, 1943. It was the first mission for both the plane and the crew. Lady Be Good was the only plane of the mission that did not return to its base in Libya. Officials assumed at the time that the plane went down in the Mediterranean Sea. An extensive search was carried out, but no sign of the plane or crew was found. In 1958 an oil survey exploration crew was taking aerial photographs and spotted the plane in the Libyan desert. The plane had crashed, but was preserved well in the arid conditions. The radio and a machine gun still worked! But there was no sign of the nine-man crew. In 1959, a months-long search was conducted to find their remains. A trail was found, complete with signs left behind indicating what direction the men had gone, but the trail petered out and the search was abandoned. In 1960, the remains of eight of the nine crew members were found at various places in the desert. Among the items found with the bodies was a diary of co-pilot Robert Toner that revealed the tragic story. The nine men had bailed out before the crash; eight survived. The survivors walked 85 miles before five gave up and three continued to walk until they died. The remains of gunner Vernon L. Moore were never found.

3. The Volcano

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On August 15, 1976, a Vickers 785D Viscount operated by the airline SAETA took off from Quito, Ecuador en route to Cuenca. Flight 232 never made it. Searchers could find no sign of the plane, its crew of four, or any of the 55 passengers. The two most likely scenarios were that the plane crashed on the Chimborazo volcano or that it was hijacked by Colombian guerrilla fighters. Twenty-six years later, wreckage of the plane was finally found scattered across hundreds of meters on the mountainside of Chimborazo. Some think that melting glaciers on the mountain caused the wreckage to become visible by 2002.

4. Helldiver

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On May 28, 1945, a US Navy SB2C-4 Helldiver went down in Lower Otay Reservior near San Diego. Pilot E. D. Frazar and Army gunner Joseph Metz were on a training mission when the plane's engine failed. They swam to shore while the bomber sank. The Helldiver was left buried in mud at the bottom of the lake. In 2009, Duane Johnson and Curtis Howard were fishing on the reservoir when Johnson's fish finder found the plane. Reservoir officials enlisted a salvage company to bring up the plane, which was completely buried in sediment. The recovery will be slow, as drinking water and taxpayer money is involved.

5. Glacier Girl

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On July 15, 1942 an entire squadron of planes, two B-17 bombers and six P-38s, flew out of Maine heading to England. Bitter cold and bad weather over Greenland caused the crews to lose their bearings and low fuel forced landings on the Greenland ice sheet, hours from the nearest refueling base. Supplies were dropped three days later, and eventually the crewmen were rescued. The planes left behind were buried in snow and ice over the years. Sub-surface radar found the planes in 1988, two miles from their original location and 268 feet deep in the glacier. In 1992, operations began to bring the planes out. A huge recovery effort brought a P-38 up by forcing hot water down through the ice. After four months of work the plane was taken, in pieces, to Middlesboro, Kentucky for restoration. Now known as the Glacier Girl, the P-38 flew again in 2001.

6. Yosemite

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On July 19, 1962, a plane carrying four young men home from a Billy Graham crusade left from Fresno, California headed to Sacramento. The rented 1959 Piper Cherokee never made it. The wreckage was suspected to have gone down in Yosemite National Park, but the park covers over 761,000 acres and the plane was not found until 1994. A worker at the park happened upon the wreckage in an isolated area near Stubblefield Canyon. Personal effects linked the plane to the four missing men from the 1962 crash. The crash was so remote that mules were used to bring parts of the wreckage out.

7. Fairey Battle on Ice

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On May 26, 1941, four RAF airmen took off in a Fairey Battle aircraft from Akureyri, Iceland headed to Reykjavik. They crashed into a mountain in bad weather and all four died. The wreckage was found two days later, and the airmen were memorialized on site a week later. Not long after, the Royal Air Force pulled out of Iceland and the plane was left behind to disappear under the snow. Hordur Geirsson of Akureyri, who was born years after the crash, spent two decades trying to find the site of the crash. In 1999, a friend relayed to him records detailing the exact location of the plane. Also, unprecedented warm temperatures melted the glacial ice to the extent that the wreckage of the Fairey Battle could be seen. In 2000, an expedition that included relatives of the deceased airmen reached the spot.

8. Steve Fossett

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A single-engine Bellanca Super Decathlon airplane piloted by businessman and adventurer Steve Fossett went missing over the Nevada desert on September 3, 2007. Despite a massive manhunt involving many agencies, volunteers, and even Google Earth, the plane was not found for a year. In September of 2008, evidence found by a hiker near Mammoth Lake led to the discovery of the crash site in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

9. Hellcat

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Lieutenant Walter Elcock crashed a Navy F6F-3 Hellcat fighter plane into Lake Michigan during a training exercise in 1945. Many planes suffered the same fate during World War II, but this one was brought back up in November of 2009. Andy Taylor, CEO of Enterprise Rent-A-Car arranged for his company to finance the recovery of the plane to honor his father, who was a Hellcat pilot in World War II. Elcock's grandson Hunter Browley explained how his grandfather caught the fourth wire of the carrier as he attempted to land the Hellcat and the plane's wing broke before plunging into the lake. Elcock was rescued by the Coast Guard, but the plane stayed at the bottom for 64 years. (Thanks, Steven!)

? Amelia Earhart

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The most famous lost plane of all is the Lockheed L-10E Electra that pilot Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan flew out of Lae, New Guinea on July 3, 1937 and was never seen again. The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes that Earhart and Noonan made it to uninhabited Gardner Island (now named Nikumaroro Island). The group found some personal effects dating from the correct time period on the island in 2007, and plan an expedition to recover possible DNA evidence in 2010.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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