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Who Believes In A Flying Dutchman? Not Everyone, Apparently
March 21, 2012
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Jarno Smeets is a Dutch engineer who has caused a minor tizzy among tech nerds (and quite a few other people, as well) by apparently figuring out a way to fly - by flapping his arms like wings, no less.

But he may have soared too close to the sun of internet sensationalism, with skeptics rapidly emerging to call his feats into doubt.

A video showing Smeets taking flight with a pair of giant, kite-like wings has become a minor sensation on YouTube, evoking as it does an age-old human dream of taking to the air under one's own power.

But his flight was not exactly human-powered - in addition to his carbon-fortified wing apparatus, Smeets' system uses "two Wii controllers and the accelerometers from an HTC Wildfire S smartphone along with Turnigy motors to power 17m2 wings", according to TIME's Matt Peckham.

Smeets, however, has made no secret of the technological trickery behind his wings. So what has irritated the skeptics about Smeets' moment of internet fame? There is certainly no shortage of online commenters suggesting that the video is fake.

Some naysaying is technical: U.K. tech publication The Register, for example, notes that "there seems no reason for the ground cameras to stay so far away from the intrepid birdman during launch, and that the wings show no signs of the loading they would be under during such a flight. Furthermore the hardware doesn't appear to contain a battery of the sort which would be required - bearing in mind that this would be a very large battery even for a flight technology more efficient than an ornithopter."

On Gizmodo, writer Jesus Diaz was duly impressed by Smeets' video, but gave space to some of the doubters, such as a glider pilot who said "this is not real. ... The roll stability and pitch stability are not present to fly", and a hang glider who pointed out that the wings are "not showing load at any time. ... It isn't a matter of opinion. ... If the wings aren't producing lift, this has to be a fake."

Over at Wired, however, physicist Rhett Allain points out that the video itself holds up to analysis and is unlikely to be fake, and that it might be disingenuous to compare a "flapper" with a glider.

And LiveScience has an article that further explores the possibility that the whole thing may be a publicity stunt engineered by a backer who will come forward later.

As for the armchair experts - i.e. people on Twitter - the skeptics seem to fall into two categories: The people who think it's just too good to be true ...


... and the people who think it must be a guerilla ad campaign of some form or another:


Others, like Duke University sociologist Kieran Healy, seem downright offended that anyone could possibly think Smeets' flight might be true:


So is it true or isn't it? Jan Smeets' own website gives a rundown on just how he achieved the miracle of human flight. Whether it's enough to convince the skeptics remains to be seen.

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