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The Flying Pinto That Killed Its Inventor

Image credit: Doug Duncan

The flying car has been invented over and over again. The problem is, each iteration has fallen somewhere on the line between amusing failure and outright disaster. Perhaps the most infamous example was the AVE Mizar, a.k.a. the “Flying Pinto,” which killed its inventor on an early voyage.

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machine

Henry Smolinski was born in 1933, one of eight children in a Polish American family living in Cuyahoga, Ohio. After attending the Northrop Institute of Technology's aeronautical engineering school, he began his career at North American Aviation as a structural engineer working on jet engine and aircraft design. In 1959, he joined Rocketdyne as a project engineer, working on their missile development and aerospace programs.

After a decade at Rocketdyne, Smolinsky left to form his own company with his friend, Hal Blake. They founded Advanced Vehicle Engineers in Van Nuys, California, in 1971, expressly to design and build a flying car. Their first and only model was AVE Mizar (named after one of the stars that form the Big Dipper’s handle). The idea was simple enough: take a regular car and a small airplane and modify them both, so a person could drive the car to an airport, fit the car and the waiting airframe together, take off from the runway, come down a few hundred miles away at another air strip, detach from the airframe and then drive the car away.

Image credit: Curbside Classic

The prototypes of the Mizar were made by sawing up a Cessna Skymaster and a Ford Pinto and fitting them together. The Skymaster’s cabin and front engine were removed and the rest of the plane attached to the Pinto, with the wings sitting over the roof and the pusher engine snuggling up against the hatchback. The Pinto was backed into the airframe and four high-strength, self-locking pins were used to hook everything together. The driver’s controls were adapted so that in flight the driver/pilot could control the airframe’s ailerons by turning the steering wheel right or left, and the elevator by pushing and pulling the wheel. Pedals to control the rudder were also installed, and all the flight controls inside the car were attached to the airframe via connections that ran underneath the driver’s side of the car. The Pinto’s dashboard was outfitted with flight instruments like air speed and rate of climb gauges, an altimeter, a directional gyro, fuel pressure gauges, a throttle, and radio navigational equipment.

The Mizar could use both the car engine and the aircraft engine during launch to shorten the takeoff roll. Once in the air, the craft had a cruising speed of 130 mph, a range of 1,000+ miles, and a ceiling of 12,000 feet. Upon landing, the car’s brake system would stop the craft on just 530 feet of runway.

On an early test flight conducted by pilot Charles "Red" Janisse in 1973, the right wing strut’s mounting attachment failed not long after takeoff. Red knew turning the craft would put too much stress on the unsupported wing and might rip it clean off, so he had to put the Mizar straight down in a bean field and drive the wounded vehicle, airframe still attached, back to the airport. AVE got great publicity anyway. The Mizar became a hard-to-ignore sensation and Galpin Ford of Sepulveda (now known as North Hills), California, signed on as a national distributor.

Smolinsky wooed the public with sales pitches and press conferences, promising a vehicle that was simple (“A woman can easily put the two systems together - or separate them - without help”) and affordable enough ($15,000 at full production, divided roughly to $4,000 for the car, $5,500 for the air engine, and $5,000 for the air frame) for anyone to take to the skies.

Disaster

One of Smolinsky’s press conferences foreshadowed tragedy, though. As the Los Angeles Times reported, “…the room was full of skeptics and some technical questions were not fully answered. The aircar people acknowledged there are problems. ‘But we feel we have the answers,’ they said.”

In the summer of 1973, another prototype with a different plane engine was unveiled and taken for a series of taxi and flight tests over a span of three months at the Ventura County Airport. On September 11, Jannise was not available for a scheduled test flight, so Smolinsky and Blake took the Mizar up themselves.

According to Mac Grisham, the airport manager, the men had made an agreement with the airport that they would notify him before each flight, so he could alert local police and fire officials. For some reason, Smolinsky made no contact with Grisham that day, and after watching the Mizar take off, Grisham ran to the air control tower to radio the craft.

As he neared the tower, he heard the airport’s crash horn shriek, and turned to see a column of thick black smoke rising up from below where the Mizar should have been.

The alarm had been hit by Danny Edwards, an air traffic controller in the tower, who had been watching the Mizar through his binoculars. About two minutes after takeoff, he saw the craft’s right wing fold in. The Mizar twisted and then fell, with various parts and pieces flying off. Another witness was on his lawn and watched the craft fall, strike the top of a tree, crash onto a pickup truck parked in the street, and burst into flames.

Smolinski and Blake were both killed instantly, according to the local coroner, though he wasn’t able to determine if whether they died from crash injuries, burns or from smoke inhalation.

After their investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board reported that this particular version of the Mizar had several problems. For one, even though the Pinto was not a large car, the Mizar was just too heavy. It was already over gross weight without passengers or fuel. They also found loose parts and an earlier problem that reared its head again. A bad weld had resulted in the right wing strut attachment failing where it met the body panel of the Pinto.

With the death of its inventor, the Mizar project was shelved and AVE shut down. Hindsight being 20/20, it's easy to say that a Pinto, a car famous for being a death-trap on the ground, should never have flown. But Smolinsky did make it fly, even if just for a few moments, when so many others could never get their own flying cars off the ground.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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iStock
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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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iStock

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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