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The St. Louis Arch: A Magnet for Aircraft

Posted by Failed Success on 03/29/06 at 10:37 PM

Arch MagnetYoung aviation enthusiasts in the St. Louis area should be aware that the Arch is an airplane magnet.

This has been a closely held secret for many years; ever since the Arch was completed and opened for business in 1967, as a matter of fact.  Lord knows how many young pilots have been sucked into it. Mathematicians more familiar with slack chains attached to a pair of gate posts can tell you more about catenary curves than I can.

The Arch happens to be an inverted catenary curve, and thatís partially responsible for the great attraction it had for old aviators who gave up flying for a living back in the days of aviation gasoline rationing in the Ď70ís, when due to scarcity it became too expensive to burn in our engines. Now, with the prices of airplanes gone sky high, and the gas prices tripled, itís a rare, warm day in winter when we fly at all, much less get close enough to that Arch to feel its pull. Those of you familiar with the Arch’s sinister history of weather control might want to read on.

Catenary CurveThe catenary curve, has more uses than the design of monumental arches.  The leading edges of old, slow airplanes had that shape, though it was structurally sound, it was inefficient and tended to gather ice when flown through sub-freezing fogs above the rivers that have their confluence near STL.  That curve, inverted, may have influenced Gravityís Rainbow, so cleverly written by Thomas Pynchon; who based a fine tale on the trail of smoke following the German V-2 rockets designed by Herr Werner Von Braun, a Nazi scientist smuggled into this country to design weapons for the Cold War era and vehicles for launching men to the moon.

Herr Von Braun didnít invent the curve, he merely pushed its envelope a tad, which wasnít all bad; certainly not as bad as building rocket propelled bombs to blast Britain.

It doesnít take a whole lot of imagination to see how the catenary curve, with a push and shove here and there can be bent into an hyperbolic curve, or tale, such as one I recently read.  It is both the art and tradition of story tellers to stretch the truth a mite, while keeping their tale believable; I have no quarrel with that, and sometimes do it myself when writing fiction.  But when it comes down to an article of faith, a straight line is always the shortest distance between the beginning and end, with just a taste of embellishment somewhere around the middle.  All the talk about changing the weather around St. Louis with that Arch is just that sort of believable hyperbola that I enjoy now and then.

The folks who build arches have plenty of time, and oodles of money to spend on ornamental, non-functional, monuments.  But folks who lay pipelines to transport oil and gasoline clear across the continent tend to prefer straight lines.

The Explorer pipeline, a monumental project itself, follows a path as straight as the terrain and the powers of eminent domain would allow.  One of the Explorerís terminals just happens to be in East St. Louis, just across the river from that exaggerated MacDonaldís arch which casts its spell on airplanes and pilots alike.

At a time in the distant past, I was so hard up for a flying job that I took one flying aerial patrols along the Explorer Pipeline for a company down in Texas.  It was my job to fly from Hammond, Indiana southwest above the right of way to spot leaks, or disgruntled farmers whose lands had been divided without their consent to make room for the Explorer Pipeline.  Not unlike the angry folks in Iraq who periodically blast the pipelines in their country, which our troops have occupied for the past three years, some of our own farmers, tired of having their pastures and corn fields split up into uneconomical triangular parcels by the government, had threatened to blow up the Explorer.  Although no bombs ever went off to my knowledge, I had to keep an eye open, just in case.  So I flew down the Explorer right of way as low as the law allowed (which I might add was a ton of fun on a cold winterís day). 

After crossing the East St. Louis terminal, I would fly down the eastern levee to the place where the pipeline crosses the muddy Mississippi submerged, looking for oil slicks where it might have been nicked by a passing vessel dragging its anchor.  From the river crossing, the Explorer Pipeline was bent every which way, so thatís the way I had to fly the plane. From the ground, folks could look up and read the sign painted on the underside of my wings: ďPIPELINEóPATROL.Ē Doubtless some of those folks on the ground thought the pilot flying the plane, was drunk as a sailor on shore leave.

One morning, just about sunrise, I felt something either pushing or pulling the old Cessna Sky Hawk to the west, just as I was approaching the East St. Louis refineries.  Try as I might to control my direction of flight, I found myself flying across the mighty river and aimed at the dead centerat the Old Court House between the two leaning legs of that stainless steel Arch.

Cessna 172Well, it was nothing to worry about. The thing is more than six hundred feet wide at its base, and thereís six hundred or more feet of air space between the grounds of Jefferson Park and the top of the Arch. 

Since I couldnít seem to change the direction the airplane had chosen, as if flying on automatic pilot, I sat back and enjoyed the view.  Of course it took only seconds, flying at 150 knots ground speed, and I was through the Arch and heading straight for the verdigris dome of the Old Court House.

Luckily for me and for that old monument to Dred Scott, the power of the Arch had relaxed its grip on my plane.  But I had to shove the throttle to the firewall and haul back on the yoke to clear the cupola that stands on top of the dome.  I reckon I had a hundred or more feet of air between the flagpole and the skin on the bottom of my fuselage, when I passed that pole.

As I flew on my way, toward the Ozarks and Oklahoma, I puzzled over the strange force of attraction that old arch exerted on my plane, which was made almost entirely of aluminum. But I never solved the mystery.  I only mentioned it to give younger, more scientific minds something to ponder.

It only happened once, out of all those time I flew past the Arch.  So I figured it must have been like a case of German Measles; once youíve had Ďem, you are ever after immune.  What ever affinity that plane had for the stainless steel of the arch that one time, its polarity had forever changed and the force of attraction became one of repulsion.

Article Written by: OldMack © 3/29/06

Learn more about the St. Louis Arch at Wikipedia
Learn more about Catenary Curve and the mathmatic principles behind the St. Louis Arch

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Previous Comments

  1. :red: “Plain crazy?” Well, I’ll be! The part about the dust storm, which was closer to Pecos than to Midland, by the way--- who expects a 21 year old blond to know anything about geography, much less about the mental health of her companion?---was true.  What she forgot to mention was thet we had just visited a tortilla factory and rolling avocado dip in the fresh tortillas when the sand storm blew in from New Mexico; I’ll swear those quacamole burros ground most of the enamel off my teeth, but I was too stubborn to throw away good food.  We were not rich as most of the West Texans, with gas and oil wells growing in their gardens, pumping out greenbacks.

    Why do you suppose I talked so much?  If you’ve ever had a serious affair with a younger woman, then you know that someday they’re going to accuse you of having hidded some secret from then (as an excuse to pack their bags and seek greener pastures.  Right?).  Well, I wanted her to know the whole unvarnished truth about OldMack, because he aimed to marry her, have children by her, and grow old with the girl. 

    Sometimes I wish now, now that we’ve grown old together, that I’d kept my trap shut about those visits to the VA Mental Health outfits; she didn’t need to know about them; she could tell I wasn’t quite right in the head.

    Posted by OldMack  on  10/09/06  at  09:50 PM
  2. :long: If you think this story’s long and confusing, you should be trapped in a truck with OldMack riding across the broadest part of Texas. 

    Crossing Texas in an old Chevy Van he called “The Blue Womb With a View” took three days.  OldMack told one story after another, and wouldn’t shut up until I screamed: “I can’t listen any more!  You’ve given me an earache!”

    He shut up for at least an hour, but not because I was tired of listening to him; we ran into a dust storm just west of Midland, Texas, and he spent the next hour coughing up mud. 

    OldMack stopped at every airport in the State, begging for another flying job; word must have leaked out about the St. Louis Arch stunt, because nobody hired him to fly their planes that year.  OldMack said it was the high price of aviation fuel that put a crimp in the market for gypsy pilots like him, but I’ll bet people thought that OldMack was plain crazy.

    Posted by Chris  on  10/08/06  at  03:22 PM
  3. :bug:
    Dear Briana Waterhead.  If you point your mouse at the links at the bottom of the Tale, and click, you will find yourself at a site which tells you all about the building of the St. Louis Arch, how large it is, what it is made of, and show you how to do the math for cantenary curves and hyperbolas.

    In literature, hyperbole means stretching the truth a bit.  Paul Bunyon was taller than the giant Sequoia trees is an example of hyperbole.

    Thank you all for reading my story.  IAA’s comment quoting our Secretary of Defense was cogent.

    Posted by OldMack  on  06/23/06  at  05:24 PM
  4. they are way to f***ing fat i think that they need to get first aid

    Posted by Briana waterhead  on  06/05/06  at  11:40 PM
  5. How long do an arch take to be made?

    Posted by Briana waterhead  on  06/05/06  at  11:38 PM
  6. I would love to have a spot where u don’t have to be 16 to get a my space a space for kids.So why can’t we have a young myspace?So get a clue for the young 10 to 15!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Posted by Briana waterhead  on  06/05/06  at  11:36 PM
  7. I am a born and raised St. Louis citizen and have NEVER heard such hogwash in all my life. This article would be much better represented on a satire website like ‘The Onion.’ As purveyors of useless knowledge, I think the writers of failedsuccess should probably get the facts straight before publishing garbage like this.

    Posted by bingbong  on  05/04/06  at  01:17 PM
  8. wow you really took a lot of time into this crazy crackpot ideal of your’s i do not believe that is even possible it is way to dangerous to keep up. if this is true they need to take the arch down imeediatly but i don’t think your story is true

    Posted by Zach Thompson  on  04/08/06  at  01:40 AM
  9. Interesting tale Mack. Could it be thanatos that drew you to the arch? Flyers are a special breed, perhaps you had an irressistable thrill-urge, akin to a bout of OCD?

    As for ‘foreveryoung’ one would need to test that hypothesis, wouldn’t one? I don’t think there’s been an extensive study, nor a systematic debriefing of all pilots who have experienced the Arch phenomenon.

    To quote the Secretary of Defense, ‘There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.’ I’m prepared to accept that the arch falls into the latter category.

    Posted by Khakjaan  on  04/05/06  at  04:37 PM
  10. :bug:

    Posted by wildwumon  on  04/03/06  at  05:28 PM
  11. There is no way this is true. They wouldn’t leave the thing up if it really attracted planes to it and could cause accidents.

    Posted by foreveryoung  on  03/31/06  at  05:49 PM
  12. Yes and so do skydivers...it just draws them in like a moth to a flame.

    Posted by Failed Success  on  03/30/06  at  11:38 PM
  13. Pretty interesting take on yet more effects of the St. Louis arch. Im getting more and more scared of that thing.

    Do pilots really have this problem around the arch?

    Posted by inmate456787  on  03/30/06  at  02:20 AM