OK, let"s figure out why the airplane will fly.
Manfred"s in the airplane. Old Hack has the Army-surplus crane fired up and he"s picking up the J-3 and Manfred and carrying them over to Runway 27, which has been transformed into a 3,000-foot conveyor belt. It is a calm day. The conveyor drive is programmed so that if Manfred can start to move in the J-3, if he can generate any airspeed or groundspeed, the conveyor will move toward the east (remember Manfred and the J-3 are facing west) at exactly the speed of the air/groundspeed. Because the wind is calm, if Manfred can generate any indicated airspeed, he will also be generating precisely the same groundspeed. Groundspeed, of course being relative to the ground of the airport surrounding the conveyor belt runway. So, the speed of the conveyor belt eastbound will be the same as Manfred"s indicated airspeed, westbound.
Manfred does his prestart checklist, holds the heel brakes, hits the starter and the little Continental up front clatters to life. Oil pressure comes up and stabilizes and Manfred tries to look busy because the eyes of the world are upon him, but all he can do is make sure the fuel is on and the altimeter and trim are set, then do a quick runup to check the mags and the carb heat. He moves the controls through their full travel and glares at the ailerons, doing his best to look heroic, then holds the stick aft in the slipstream to pin the tail and lets go of the brakes.
Baron of the Belt
So far the J-3 has not moved, nor has the conveyor. At idle power, there"s not enough thrust to move the J-3 forward on a level surface, so Manfred starts to bring up the power, intending to take off. The propeller rpm increases and the prop shoves air aft, as it does on every takeoff, causing the airplane to move forward through the air, and as a consequence, forward with regard to the ground. Simultaneously the conveyor creaks to life, moving east, under the tires of the J-3. As the J-3 thrusts its way through the air, driven by its propeller, the airspeed indicator comes off the peg at about 10 mph. At that moment the conveyor is moving at 10 mph to the east and the tires are whirling around at 20 mph because the prop has pulled it to an airspeed, and groundspeed, of 10 mph, westbound. The airplane is moving relative to the still air and the ground at 10 mph, but with regard to the conveyor, which is going the other way at 10 mph, the relative speed is 20 mph.
Manfred relaxes a bit because the conveyor cannot stop him from moving forward. There is nothing on the airplane that pushes against the ground or the conveyor in order for it to accelerate; as Karen -- one of our techies here at the Lounge -- put it, the airplane freewheels. In technical terms, there is some bearing drag on the wheels, but it"s under 40 pounds, and the engine has overcome that for years; plus the drag doesn"t increase significantly as the wheel speed increases. Unless Manfred applies the brakes, the conveyor cannot affect the rate at which the airplane accelerates.
A few moments later, the roaring Continental, spinning that wooden Sensenich prop, has accelerated the J-3 and Manfred to 25 mph indicated airspeed. He and the airplane are cruising past the cheering spectators at 25 mph, while the conveyor has accelerated to 25 mph eastbound, yet it still has no way of stopping the airplane"s movement through the air. The wheels are spinning at 50 mph, so the noise level is a little high, but otherwise, the J-3 is making a normal, calm-wind takeoff.
As the indicated airspeed passes 45 mph, groundspeed -- you know, relative to where all those spectators are standing beside the conveyor belt -- is also 45 mph. (At least that"s what it says on Manfred"s GPS. Being brought back to life seemed to create an insatiable desire for electronic stuff.) The conveyor is also at 45 mph, and the wheels are whizzing around at 90 -- the groundspeed plus the speed of the conveyor in the opposite direction.
Manfred breaks ground, climbs a few hundred feet, then makes a low pass to see if he can terrify the spectators because they are Americans, descendants of those who defeated his countrymen back in 1918.
It"s All About Airspeed
(Don"t try this at home!)
(Don"t try this at home!)
While the speed of the conveyor belt in the opposite direction is superficially attractive in saying the airplane cannot accelerate, it truly is irrelevant to what is happening with the airplane, because the medium on which it is acting is the air. The only time it could be a problem is if the wheel speed got so high that the tires blew out.
Put another way, consider the problem with the J-3 mounted on a hovercraft body (yes, similar things were tried about 30 years ago). The hovercraft lifts the airplane a fraction of an inch above the conveyor belt, and so no matter how fast the conveyor spins, it cannot prevent the propeller -- acting on the air -- from accelerating the airplane to takeoff speed. It"s the same with wheels rolling on the conveyor belt. Those wheels are not powered and thus do not push against the belt to accelerate the airplane. Were that the case, the vehicle could not reach an airspeed needed to fly, because then the conveyor, the medium acted upon by the propulsive force, would be able to negate the acceleration relative to the air and ground.
I"m reminded of the New York Times editorial when Robert Goddard"s rocket experiments were first being publicized. The author of the editorial said that rockets can"t work in space because they have nothing to push against. It was laughably wrong, ignoring one of Sir Isaac"s laws of physics that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Here the propeller is pushing against the air, as it does every time an airplane takes off. How fast the airplane is moving over the surface on which its wheels rest is irrelevant; the medium is the magic. On a normal takeoff -- no conveyor involved -- if there is a 20 mph headwind, Manfred and the J-3 will lift off at 45 mph indicated airspeed; but relative to the ground, it is only 25 mph. Should the wind increase to 45 mph and if Manfred can get to the runway, he can take off without rolling an inch. His airspeed is 45 and groundspeed is zero. It is not necessary to have any groundspeed to fly, just airspeed. Conversely, if Manfred has a lot of runway and nothing to hit, and takes off downwind in a 25 mph tailwind, the propeller will have to accelerate the airplane to a zero airspeed, which will be a 25 mph groundspeed, and then on to a 45 mph airspeed, which will have him humming across the ground at 70 mph. The speed over the ground, or a conveyor belt, when an airplane takes off is irrelevant; all that matters is its speed through the air, and unless the pilot sets the brakes, a moving conveyor belt -- under the freely turning wheels -- cannot stop the process of acceleration.
Things eventually calmed down as the number of "it won"t fly" folks dwindled as they began to understand that the airplane would take off. Old Hack looked at me and suggested we depart as the few holdouts showed no sign of changing their position. So, we headed out into the night to watch the guys take the conveyor out and reinstall the runway.