The Age of Phlight - Lionel Wolberger

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This is an entry in The Future We Deserve - a collaborative book project about the future. See all the entries or talk about this entry.

We live in the dawn of the age of phlight.

Phlight is flight, but spelled with a "ph." Why? Flight today means "fossil fuel" flight, hence the "f"; such airborne buses can only stay aloft with a constant roar of jet fuel through an engine. I am talking about phlight: renewable sun-powered flight, hence the "ph", standing for passive heliogenic flight.

A cloud weighs half a million kilograms yet is suspended in the air by sunlight alone. That is the emblem of phlight; if you will forgive the literary excess, let us say that the cloud phlies.

Flight - with a fossil fuel f - is done today not only by airplanes, helicopters and rocket ships, but also by hot air and weather balloons, dirigibles, blimps, zeppelins - why? All of these are dependent on fossil fuel powered engines. Even gliders are pulled by fossil-fuel powered vehicles. All of these fly and do not phly.

  • Phlight - passive heliogenic phlight - is done today by kites, passive solar-powered balloons, Tomas Saraceno's Museo Aero Solar and his flying gardens. There are also promising experimental solar collectors and kite-like wind generators, but progress is slow.

We envision a day when people sleep, work and phly daily along internationally accepted phlight paths. The slow progress towards phlight is due to the significant challenges that phlight poses. Understanding the challenges is a necessary first step towards finding solutions. The challenges are technological and social.

Phlight requires technological advances in

  • materials: ultra-light materials like Aerogel to build any rigid structures needed;
  • fabrics: ultra-thin textiles that can sequester sun radiation, retain hot air or release it as needed. Perhaps buckypaper can help.
  • suits: the original B-17 passengers wore heated flying suits with oxygen masks to protect them from the -45 degree Celsius cold. We need new such suits for our phliers, perhaps based on mountaineering and arctic gear.
  • kitchen and toilet: ultra-efficient food preparation and waste evacuation facilities are needed as every gram counts;
  • GIS: multidimensional maps of the atmosphere are needed; Google Earth-type GIS is a good first step, but that is only the surface of the earth; we need to innovate new methods to map the flows of air that have both depth and breadth.
  • escape devices: a safety vest is needed for people in phlight, perhaps gas-ejected parachutes.

Phlight requires social and political advances in

  • path clearing: we need to clear passive phlight paths in the atmosphere, using methods such as those used by Appalachian Trail and bike path activists; these paths require clear political border rights and air rights of passage, keeping in mind the passive and hence less-controlled nature of phlight.
  • flags of convenience: just like the law of the sea has a jurisdictional limit of 12 miles, the atmosphere should have a similar limit; but airsteaders, homesteading in the air, may fly flags of convenience to broker their encounters with land;
  • ports of call: Phlight ports need to be created, with a clear idea of what supplies and services are needed at such a port.
  • motivation: Flight is marked by drama: the rush of speed, the loud noise, the tremendous power, the vicarious thrill of seeing death-defying stunts, the frisson of pilots in military-style dress and stewardesses in short dresses. Phlight is very different: it is a contemplative pleasure like gardening, a union with nature like sailing. (On a hormonal level, flight elicits fight-or-flight adrenaline responses; phlight elicits oxytocin-type responses of endurance, closeness and bonding).

The ocean was first traveled in passive heliogenic sea craft. The earliest seamen innovated a tremendous range of technologies that benefited all humankind, such as star navigation and tension-based sail structures. They must have been crazy, taking to sea on little more than a song and a hope; yet they discovered and populated the world. Today's seasteaders take up their call, and continue to harness the freedom of the sea as a source of social and governmental innovation.

Air travel developed in reverse: first came fossil and carbon-fueled flight (even the first hot air balloons were heated by wood burning). Phlight had to await the high-tech fabrics and portable oxygen needed to enable a human to live in the oxygen-deprived, cold atmosphere. But today events pressure us to take to the skies. Overpopulation and ecological stress motivate humanity to leave the ground and take to the air.

The first phlying pioneers need to be extremely motivated people, just like the first seaman, and the first pilots. Until these people show up we can plant phlying gardens. We can hoist an atmonaut into a phlying meditation space tethered to the ground. Perhaps an X-prize can go to the first atmonaut to stay aloft for a month, or a year, in phlight. We can begin to request phlight paths from the owners of the jumbo jet superhighways, and we begin to collect the GIS data to comprehend atmospheric flows. The Graf zeppelin flew over a million and a half kilometers, including a trip around the world, but was retired as it was too slow (90 km/h) and too dangerous (flammable hydrogen). Who will duplicate that record, but by dwelling and not touring, by airsteading and not transporting? Living in the rarified cold on solar powered air--with no need for such fine steering control, nor tables with linen table cloths.

Phlight is a critical step towards easing our planet's burdens. Once achieved, we can begin tearing up concrete and liberate the world-around layer of soil from its asphalt prison, leaving it to do what it does best: make food and support the biosphere. We can achieve humanity's original dream of taking to the skies, not on the back of a roaring engine, but on the caress of a cloud.