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July 20, 2016 59 mins

Back in the 1930s, engineers suggested we build floating airports on the water to work around space constraints. Is it finally time to build one?

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Brought to you by Toyota. Let's go places. Welcome to
Forward Thinking. Hey there, and welcome Jock Forward Thinking, the
podcast that looks at the future. It says, right in
the long in this big old jet plane, I've been

(00:20):
thinking about my home. I'm job and Strick, and I'm
Joe McCormick, and today we're going to be starting off
with a little bit of wonderful retro futurism from the
nineteen thirties. Yeah, this was something so I read an
article in CNN that prompted me to look into this,
and it all started with an article that came out

(00:42):
in Popular Mechanics in January nineteen thirty. Now was that
Popular Science or Popular Popular Mechanics. You can actually read
the entire issue of January ninety Popular Mechanics on Google Books,
and the whole thing is physically scanned in. There's a
whole bunch of of those old back issues of that,
and it's really fascinating for the advertisements and for the articles. Well,

(01:04):
for one thing, you know that this was this was
a small piece about the future of commercial flight. Because
commercial flight was pretty young in n there hadn't been
a whole lot of it yeah, the right, brothers, that
was only like what three or yeah? And so there
were bits of in the articles such as will you
plummet from the sky? Uh? Will you, to which the

(01:27):
answer was maybe, to be fair, I wonder that every
time I get on an airplane. Yeah, I understand the physics,
and I'm still like, right, right the whole scenes, in
defiance of the laws of nature, we will take flight. Well,
this this article had a tiny paragraph in it that
was says aside for a specific uh subject, and that

(01:50):
was this idea of airport built over the surface of
the ocean, specifically, several airport built every four hundred miles
or so across the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and North America.
And the idea was not that planes had to land
in order to refuel, although that would definitely be a

(02:14):
bonus because they could because they had already done long
long distance flights before, but more for the comfort of passengers. Uh.
The amenities aboard early commercial flights were let's say, even
less impressive than flying coach today. Anyway, unless you were rich,
in which case you might have all the comforts the

(02:34):
wealthy could afford. Yes, you would, you would, you weren't
so worried about speed, We're worried about luxury. But they
wanted to put an airport about every four dred miles
across the Atlantic. And it didn't go into a lot
of detail about the actual mechanics of such a thing.
It did essentially say that these airports wouldn't truly be

(02:57):
floating on the ocean. They would be so ported by
columns that reached all the way down to the sea floor,
and in fact the airport itself would remain eighty feet
suspended over the surface of the water, so would appear
to float over the ocean, but it wouldn't truly be floating.

(03:17):
But that's what we're gonna talk about today, are floating airports.
Uh these, by the way, the ones that we're talking about,
popular mechanics never happened. Uh, just no one wanted to
put down the money. I guess according to popular mechanics,
each floating airport would cost about twelve million dollars. So
twelve million dollars about a hundred and seventy million dollars

(03:38):
in today's money, which is actually a low estimate compared
to some of the other plans that actual humans have
actually cooked up. Right, right, well, it could very well
be that Popular Mechanics was being overly optimistic about the
construction costs of such an airport. So uh, it's it's
just one of a few early suggestions of this kind

(04:00):
of approach. There was actually another one that came along
just a couple of years later. Yeah, in February nineteen
thirty four issue of Popular Science that came across an
article called Uncle Sam asked to build floating ocean airports.
And it must be terrible when you're an icon and
you're not even a real person and people come to
you and like, hey, can you build a floating ocean

(04:21):
airport for Build it? Build it for me. Yeah. I
just asked Mr Peanut the other day if they would,
you know, co sign on a homeland and that was
probably unfair on me. Well, this was about a this
Canadian inventor and engineer named Edward Robert Armstrong's long running
idea for these things called seed romes, and these were
truly as proposed floating airports. So a seed rome would

(04:46):
be a one thousand, two hundred and twenty five foot
long landing area and refueling station floating a hundred feet
above the water on a series of twenty eight buoyancy
tanks that are partially submerged and also had ballasts there
to help, you know, prevent it from rocking too much
in the waves and stuff like that. And these things

(05:07):
would have overnight accommodations and they'd essentially be run like
a ship. Also like a ship, the seed drome would
have propellers for self guided navigation if necessary. They're under
most circumstances. They would remain anchored in place by steel
cables which are attached to a buoy which is in
turn attached to a heavy sunken anchor. And if you
all want to see what a picture of it looks like,
I've got a little link here you can take a

(05:28):
look at it. It looks like those great old retrofuturist
illustrations of the you know, the future. It has great
girders and beams and and all of that sort of
industrial magic. That's wonderful. But so what it called for
was sort of like you were talking about a series
of stations throughout the Atlantic Ocean. It called for five

(05:48):
seed dromes between the United States and Spain. It's at
about at the latitude of Washington, d C. That would
work as refueling stations for transatlantic flights, and the the
sea drums would each be about three hours flight apart
from each other. And one of the rational is given
in the article. I don't know if there's really all
that much to this, but what the article claimed was

(06:09):
that planes could transport heavy payloads with greater speed since
the refueling stations would require the planes to carry less
fuel in addition to their payloads, so you wouldn't have
to put all the fuel on board that it takes
sticking across the ocean. You could just sort of, you know,
fill up one fifth of the tank each time. But

(06:31):
according to this article, the US government was quote interested
in the proposal, and Armstrong was currently seeking federal funding
for the project, and somehow it just didn't work out.
I don't know. I'm guessing they should have asked someone
besides just uncle Sam, right if I found at least
Santa and the Easter Bunny to right it. Arguing arguing

(06:52):
with a poster just doesn't trust me, I've been there,
doesn't really get you anywhere. Oh. I imagine that there
were several other things going on in this country other
than like a pressing need to get more stops between
US and certain parts of Europe. Well, Sam had this
bizarre plan to build landing strips out of people. He

(07:12):
was a saying, I want you to land planes on,
and just a few years later there'll be plenty of
unemployed to use them as ballast. Uh yeah, moving on
from gallows humor. So these projects didn't work out, but
it didn't stop people from thinking about the floating airport
concept in general, and in fact it has There's gonna

(07:35):
be so many puns in this, and I apologize resurfaced
many decades later, and uh you might wanna know, like, well,
why would anyone be interested in a floating airport in
the first place, Like what's why not build a regular airport? Yeah,
what's the appeal? Well, I mean, part of this is
to think about what is the purpose of an airport.
Obviously it's to land planes. But you can't land a

(07:57):
plane just anywhere you're want to land it closer to
the destinations where people want to go. So, uh so
land scarcity and local land scarcity matters. And it's not
that there's not enough land on Earth to land airplanes on.
That in many cases there's not enough flat stable real

(08:17):
estate near the big population center where people are trying
to get to write. Yeah. No one is saying that
New York State does not have enough land in it,
but the isle of Manhattan specifically not large. It's pretty
it's pretty jampacked with stuff already. Yeah. Yeah, there's There
are a lot of places around the world where the

(08:39):
populations are either coming close to reaching the capacity that
their airport can provide or are beyond that capacity. And
it's not as simple as saying, well, why don't you
just build another runway, because sometimes there's just not any
space to do that. You can't really add on to
some existing airports. And then the other, the other alternative,

(09:02):
is to build an additional airport. There may not be
any flat land near the city that's available for that.
I mean, think about Japan. That's a great example. Japan
has extremely densely populated cities, and it also there's not
a lot of flat land. Sure, yeah, and well and
and furthermore, when you start talking about building a second airport,
then you're getting into that problem that we've discussed before

(09:25):
on this show about adding um uh more infrastructure problems.
Rather than kind of doubling up with the infrastructure that
you've already built. Yeah. Well, and actually in there's some
cases where there's been discussion of creating a floating airport
to completely replace an existing airport, so it's not even
to just supplement what is already there. And maybe that
we could raise that parking lot and put up some

(09:47):
more high rise condos. Yeah. Yeah, boy, market has really
opened our eyes to the future, hasn't it? Okay anyway,
So land scarcity is obviously a big issue. That's probably
a reason number one why people have looked at floating airports.
The idea that if you can't really find flat ground
that is not already taken up by something else, what

(10:09):
about any water that's nearby. You don't have to worry
about flat ground there you can if you can build
something on water and make sure it's steady enough, then
that could solve a lot of issues depending on where
the city is. Obviously you kind of had to be
near water, but a lot of our major population areas
happened to be because well, I don't know if you notice,
but water is something that we need. Also, trade routes

(10:29):
having been what they were for a long time. Yes,
seaports were kind of a thing. Our city of Atlanta
is kind of an exception because we were sort of
a a stop for a lot of different land routes
along the Eastern Seaboard rails. Yeah, yeah, I mean Atlanta
used to be terminus. It was the place where all
these rail lines terminated. And uh so it's a little different.

(10:52):
But but most cities tend to be not too far
from a coastal region and that's where you could put
something like a floating airport. Honestly, be a lot harder
to do it in the mountains. So that's reason number one.
Another reason, though, is the idea of cutting back on
noise pollution. And it's not that an airport over the
water would magically be more quiet. It's that there aren't

(11:14):
as many people living on open water. So air airplanes
coming down and landing at an airport that's on open water,
you wouldn't have as much noise pollution there because it
wouldn't be affecting anybody. I mean, the noise would be there,
it just wouldn't be affecting people right right, And and
that's more than just an annoyance. If you live in
an area with heavy continual noise pollution, like an airport

(11:37):
that puts adults at possible risk for hypertension and thus
cardigio vascular disease, and kids in that situation could be
at risk for stuff like impaired reading, comprehension and long
term memory plus higher blood pressure. Again. Um, so getting
that kind of industry out of our neighborhoods could do
real good for people. Yeah. So there's there's some actual

(11:57):
like positives that you can point at right way and say,
all right, all right, I can see why you would
consider this, But there's there's some also potential negative impacts
as well. Doesn't sound cheap, super not cheap, I'm guessing
un cheap, But there's an opposite cheap there is, it's expensive,
and that's what this would be. Yes, But aside from

(12:18):
the monetary thing, there's also environmental concerns because you know,
it is taking a source of noise, pollution and heat
sink due to all that pavement and you know local
land environment destruction and putting all that bad stuff smack
into the middle of an ocean. Uh? Is that good? Times?
Is that worth it? Yeah? And when we get into

(12:40):
talking about specifics, I'll mention some of the the uh,
the stuff that various groups have said like, oh, the
invinmal impact would be minimal. Um, I'm somewhat skeptical of that,
at least in a few cases. I'm I'm pretty highly skeptical.

(13:00):
I think that in general, when you're covering a few
square miles of ocean space with something that didn't used
to be there before, there's probably going to be an
environmental impact, some kind of impact. And oceans, as we
have said before, are tricky. There's more ocean than truck.
So negative negative, Um, no, absolutely, you're absolutely right. Hey,
but wait a minute, I've got a question. Sure, Okay,

(13:22):
don't we already have floating airports because I've seen pictures
of aircraft carriers. It looks kind of like that's sort
of what they are, so kind of if you fly
a fighter jet, and I do want I was about
to say it was learning so much more about Lauren today.
So yeah. It wasn't long after the invention of heavier

(13:43):
than air aircraft that people started saying, huh, I wonder
if you could put it on a boat. Brave pilots
some might say crazy, began to experiment with trying landing
on and taking off from oats. In fact, that the
earliest aircraft carriers were converted merchant vessels, where they built

(14:06):
a flat deck on top of the existing boat's deck
and then asked people to kind of try and take
off from it or land on it. The earliest attempts,
by the way, not a successful but this developed over
time and you began to see actual ships dedicated from
the design process all the way through construction to be

(14:28):
an aircraft carrier. And so before World War Two we
had dedicated aircraft carriers sailing around the ocean. In fact,
I think the British had the earliest ones. Now they
tend to be relatively small compared to a commercial airport runway.
The runways on aircraft carriers maybe might be about three

(14:49):
feet long, and they often use catapult systems. In fact,
they all have some form of catapult system to propel
a jet forward so that it gets the speed necessary
to take off. So to catch them kind of, they've
got a cabling system where that when the jet is landing,
a hook catches a cable and that helps the jet

(15:09):
come to a stop instead of just rolling right off
the other end of the aircraft carrier and into the ocean.
So that's a very short runway three feet is incredibly short.
A medium sized commercial aircraft requires a runway of six
thousand feet. It was a way bigger times twenty times longer,
and larger jets need even longer runways like eight thousand feet.

(15:33):
So what are you gonna do? The obvious solution here
is to have passengers flying Harrier jets. Yeah, that that
sounds great. It might be a little expensive, and you
might be you might be tying your luggage to the
outside of the jet, but it would definitely be an
exciting trip. Biscoff cookies and I don't know that you'd

(15:57):
be holding onto your cookies and a Harrier jet honestly. Uh.
Although I've always wanted to fly in a like, I
have an experience of being able to fly in one
of those, either a stunt plane or a fighter jet
type of thing that's anyone out their college. Yeah, I'm
still waiting on my hook up for a helicopter. But
you mean a shorter, vertical takeoff jet or just any

(16:17):
fighters Really, any fighter jet vertical takeoff and landing jet
would be super cool. But really, any jet is what
I'm talking about. But no, that's not really a practical solution. Obviously,
So if we wanted to build a floating airport, it
would have to be of a significant length in order
to meet the requirements of commercial aircraft. Um and then

(16:39):
also with the aircraft carriers, the traditional kind, they have
some problems with pitch and roll. I mean, obviously if
it's if the if the swells are really really big
and the aircraft carrier is in fact moving, it makes
it much more difficult to have a safe landing on
that that surface, and that might be a level of

(17:00):
risk that could be acceptable in some military applications, but
it wouldn't be acceptable in a commercial flight. So you
have to have a surface that is going to be
as steady as you can possibly make it, and that
means you have to come up with an alternative to
your classic aircraft carrier. But people have done this, like

(17:23):
we were saying before, like this is a thing that
people have gotten through a number of planning stages for. Yeah, yeah,
we've even had a model made of this and had
aircraft land and take off from such a model. That
model would be one that was constructed in the mid
ninety nineties. That's when a group of companies, mostly shipbuilders,

(17:43):
got together in Tokyo to discuss the possibility of constructing
what we now call very large floating structures or vl
F s is I love I love it when the
word large is in any kind of acronym. I like
it with the word very Consider their very large floating structures,
thank you very much. Uh. And it was specifically for

(18:06):
the purposes of an offshore airport, although they proposed other
uses for such a structure as well, and they wanted
it to float in Tokyo Bay, and so they formed
what they called the Technological Research Association of Mega Float.
Mega Float. It's not a transformer, sadly, uh they Yeah. Well,

(18:27):
I mean I guess it transformed from lots of smaller
segments into a very big segment. Yeah, because they built
it out in sections exactly tiles almost. Yeah. I think
of I think of like like like old hot wheels
tracks where they snapped together. It's kind of the same
sort of idea. So so each segment was pretty huge,

(18:48):
as by sixty uh. And the overall length of the
full airport. If they were to build the big thing,
it would have been five thousand meters long, and four
thousand meters would be runways. Five thousand meters long for
for our non meter readers is about three point one miles.
That's a big floating structure. Yeah, yeah, And so the

(19:11):
actual individual segments, I just had a question. I never
thought of this before. I don't know what the answer is. Well,
what is the largest floating structure ever created by humans?
That's an excellent question. And I don't know the answer either,
because I didn't think about it before we did this,
but I would imagine it couldn't be much larger than
that for a floating structure. Most of the floating structures
I know about that are big or things like oil rigs,

(19:33):
and they're they're large, but they're not three point one
miles in size large, at least not the ones I'm
aware of. Um. In this case, the actual individual tiles
themselves were big. Three hundred meters by sixty Now that
means that's more than three d yards, which means that
these individual tiles were longer than three football fields laid down,

(19:58):
you know, end to end. And they each of these
segments were built on on tanks that you know, sealed
tanks that allowed it to float. That's what created the buoyancy.
And so you had these floating segments that then were
towed into Tokyo Bay snapped together. Uh, they had a
series of clamps Joe, and then welded together. They actually

(20:23):
talked about how they had to you know, there might
be water in some chambers that would have to be
pumped out. They'd then be welld and sealed together, welded
and sealed together, and then ultimately you got this one
thousand meter long runway that was kind of the scale
model for the overall airport. Um they hypothesized that due

(20:44):
to the size of the structure, it would be so
large that would span multiple wave cycles. So you know,
ocean waves are physical waves, but they behave the same
as other types of waves. And in fact, the idea
was that the structure would be so large, then the
waves that would encounter the mega float would cancel each
other out so that you would you would not get

(21:06):
a net movement with the actual airport. You would only
get a tiny, little little deflection, like a little deflective
movement due to the waves. And it was referred to
as the hydro elastic response or just elastic response, although
in the report they said it was quote hardly noticeable

(21:28):
in quote but to be fair they said, even though
it was a minute amount of movement, they wanted to
do extensive testing to make sure that this was not
gonna end up causing any you know, issues, any safety
concerns for aircraft. Obviously, that would be a flaw so
great to cause them to completely abandon the project entirely.

(21:53):
So they determined, this probably isn't gonna be a problem.
We will test it to be absolutely sure. And they
began to test this and said that everything seemed to
go pretty well. Um, however, uh, they it's not there anymore.
What happened, Well, they tested it and then the experiment

(22:14):
was over. Then they dismantled it. I mean again, it
was only meant to be a model, like a thousand
meter long model. Um. They were able to show that
there were some interesting safety features here. Uh. They showed
that the overall structure could remain bulliant even if one
section suffered damage. They said, if there were a catastrophic crash,

(22:36):
and of course you hope that never happens, but if
there were, then depending upon the level of damage, the
structure should still remain fine. For one thing, if there
was a fiery accident, most of that heat would dissipate
into the air, it wouldn't transfer into the structure itself.
The structure is made out of steel, which is pretty
resilient stuff. Uh. The if it crat the top of

(23:01):
the tanks, it should still remain fine. Uh. And if
it even caused cracks all the way through the tanks
to the bottom, it still would remain bulliant, assuming that
it's damaged just one section, because the other sections would
keep it floating, and so then you could send in
repair crews to repair whatever the damage was and keep
the whole structure safe as a result. Um. They also

(23:23):
talked about how with it being segmented, if you're talking
about like a massive damage where you need to replace
a segment, it's more or less modular, so you could
in theory do that. It would still you know, the
airport would have to go offline for a significant amount
of time, but you could remove a segment and replace
it with a new one if that was absolutely necessary. Now,

(23:46):
with a structure like this, I would be kind of
worried about what might happen in the case of extreme
whether events or like a tsunami exactly, or a heavy
storm or an earthquake. Right, So, it's supposed to be
earthquake proof unlike a normal airport, so not only earthquake proof,
but to the point where you could potentially continue to

(24:08):
operate the airport in an earthquake situation, so you'd be
able to have people landing and not just circling the
city until you know, an assessment can be made as
to whether or not the airport is safe to land on.
Uh So that's interesting, and they even said that it
could be tsunami proof because it'd be far enough out
in the bay where the swell of water would not

(24:31):
be so great. They talked about how the swell of
water gets the tallest as it approaches land, and that
it would be far enough out where it would be
able to weather that without it having a significant impact
on the movement of the airport itself. It would only
be after it passed through where the airport had been
moored off the coast of uh Tokyo that a tsunami

(24:53):
wave would be large enough to to start affecting people,
and by then it had already passed where the airport was.
But that is important to note that it is it
is a structure that would be moored, it would be
tied to essentially an anchor point or several anchor points
that it couldn't float away. Right, You don't just talk like,
so have you been to the airport lately? I would
have gone yesterday, but I don't know where it is now.

(25:17):
Last I saw it was sailing towards China, Like that
would be awkward. Um, so, yeah, they has a mooring
point where it would be anchored to the mainland um
or at least the rest of Japan in this case.
So it was really interesting. Again, I don't know how
much credence to give the report. It wasn't like this

(25:39):
was an investigation by a third party that said, hey,
we looked into this, we looked at their experiment. It
all seems to be on the up and up. This
was a report filed by the very entity that had
an interest in having And now, granted, I would imagine
any entity that does have an interest in building this
would want to be as transparent as possible because if

(26:02):
something were to go wrong, that's a huge amount of accountability. Right, Like,
you wouldn't want to say, ah, yeah, this airport, it's
gonna work fine for you. I gotta leave town, but
this airport is gonna be great for you guys. Hopefully
it wouldn't be like, yeah, we checked all the safety
bring all your orphans and kittens, right, We're gonna be

(26:26):
just like you know, fruit stands and big panes of
glass and nuns, everything that you know you don't want
to be involved in, like your your basic car chase. Yeah,
why are you chase? Because I was just sitting there
and think, like all the things that automatically mean that
you are going to see something really dangerous happen. You
can just put that out there. Actually, to be fair,

(26:46):
they even said that an alternate use for these structures
well an emergency gathering place. The idea that if there were,
say a massive earthquake, you could you could evacuate people,
or you know, there's a tsunami on the way, you
could evacuate people to one of these very large floating

(27:07):
structures where they would be out of harm's way for
the duration of that event. Now, it may very well
mean that there's still lots of work to be done afterward,
because the city itself could be you know, very much
affected by it, but the people, the human lives could
be saved, and you could make this an emergency response

(27:29):
kind of situation, even to the point where if you
had constructed these pieces but had not yet deployed them,
you could send them to a place where you know
there's going to be a problem and it could serve
as like almost like an emergency raft for hundreds or
thousands of people. Just kind of cool, really. And they
also had a segment about the environmental impact, and here's

(27:52):
where some more skepticism comes in. They said the environmental
impact would be minimal. Really. The biggest thing it would
impact would be fight o plankton, which would just move
all away to a different area around the megastructure, and
then the zoo plankton would follow the phytoplankton, and fish
would follow the zoo plank Yeah, everything be cool, and

(28:14):
it's just floating. It's not like there's anything disturbing the seabed.
So really just except for the mooring. Yeah, well but
the mooring. The mooring points exist anyway, It's just that
the structure would be moored to an existing mooring point
because you're talking about a big bay. But I mean,
you would literally be casting shade on the sea floor.

(28:34):
You know that, you guys are just silently judging me.
I was waiting for Jo to react. Sometimes's reactions are
really beautiful. Uh no, No, I'm I'm so I'm so
dubious about this thing, about that environmental impact part. But
it's you know, I'm sure it's it's really just like

(28:55):
like the potential for for chemical runoffs. Sure, yeah, you
have jet fuel, you have exhaust from the planes. Yeah,
you've got oil that's going into places. That oil goes
into all kinds of stuff on a flat surface that's
on the ocean, right, So then heavy rain hits that
there's going to be runoff, and they have some kind

(29:16):
of collective technology. It needs a lip. It's like it
needs to be like a rimmed baking pants, like like
a serious set of gutters. Yeah exactly. Yeah, yeah, I mean,
and it's very possible that it incorporated something along those
lines in order to do that. But I didn't come
across that in any of my research. I'd just be
concerned and I'm like harping on this now, I feel like,
but but I'd be so concerned about all of that

(29:40):
pavement that you use. Pavement absorbs heat, that heat goes somewhere,
is it distributed down into the water. Are we warming
oceans further? Well? I did read something about what one
of these one of these floating I can't remember which one,
Maybe Jonathan you'll recall that said like, look, you know,
even if there's a fire, this thing will be fine. Line.

(30:00):
It's it's just that was megafloat said. They said that
fire would be completely contained locally and the structure would
be fine. Are the fish chill about it? I think
they said it was According to them, again, it would
just radiate upward direct That's what they're saying was heat
would dissipate in the air. But I mean, honestly, without
without seeing a third party investigation on this and seeing

(30:23):
what the environmental impact is, I I like you, Lauren,
I I feel that there's probably a larger impact than
we are led to believe in the report. I I
suppose that there could be some kind of thermal insulators
to prevent any heat that happens on the top of
the surface from bleeding down through the bottom. And it's
also possible that Tokyo Bay may already be an environment

(30:44):
that is not the most conducive to life. But that
doesn't mean we should make it worse. Come on, let's
go for blink you the four eyed fish. But at
any rate, so that that was an experiment and by
two thousand they had dismantled it. They continued to analyze
the data, but it the mega float no longer exists.

(31:04):
It is not in Tokyo Bay anymore. But there was
talk of a sequel, the revenge Megafloat returns or Electric Boogaloo.
Well it's called it was going to be called Megafloat too,
but so far it hasn't come together because it's modular. Yeah,
hasn't happened yet, but there was talk of doing it,
so it may still happen at some point, but it hasn't.

(31:26):
Um it hasn't happened since two thousands. So and yet
there's still this need to increase that that capacity for
air travels. So it could be that it's revisited in
the future. Yeah, but could we consider that talk scuttled? Yeah,
that the that idea has has just sunk. Yeah, okay, guys,

(31:50):
that do we do we have any other proposals to
talk about? Plenty? Yeah, the couple in San Diego, San
Diego desperately needs another airport. Yeah, so San Diego, you've
got a city, big city southern California. It's got an
airport with one runway that's very busiest runway in the

(32:11):
United States. Because it's an international airport. You've got a
lot of flights that need to go in and out,
a lot of flight delays because you've got the one
runway to work with. And the city of San Diego
has been struggling for a long time to figure out
how to expand because it can't really doesn't have any
space to build onto the existing airport, which means you

(32:32):
need to build a second facility. And there are a
whole lot of options. One of the options they were
looking at would have required a military facility to relocate,
which the city is not eager to see happen. Uh,
there's a lot of money that kills into having a
military So what do you do. Well, there are a

(32:53):
couple of different groups that have proposed, uh, the floating
airport option, So one of them actually dates all the
way back to which that predates the mega Float. Now,
the reason I decided to say Mega Float first instead
of San Diego is that the Mega Float, at least
a model of Mega float was built. No such luck

(33:14):
with this approach. But in n a company called Float Incorporated.
Uh yeah, suggested a very large floating structure using a
technology they called the Pneumatic stabilized platform or a PSP,
which sounds like you would have an airport on a

(33:35):
bunch of like pistons, like pneumatic pistons that could automatically
adjust the pitch and roll so that it would maintain
a relative like relative to the ground, it would it
would look like it's staying flat, but relative to the ocean,
it would just keep on making minute movements to This
made sense to me once I read about what they
had in mind for the buoyancy. Uh so, so it

(33:57):
was using the idea of trapped air. It's air trapped
by the water, by the water pressure. I was just
thinking of pneumatic systems, and I was making it way
more complicated than it really is. And in fact, there's
their approach would be to have an airport resting on
a collection of cylinders that are vertically aligned with the

(34:17):
bottom open, so that you have this trapped air that's
against the ocean at ocean surface, and it's the trapped
air that is keeping the airport bulliant floating. And when
I saw that I thought, Oh, this is this is
way more simple of a machine, which is good because
the simpler a machine, the less likely it is to

(34:39):
break down. You know, you don't want it to be
too complicated, and I would I would imagine that underwater
pistons would run into a little bit of mechanical problems
probably at some point. At some point, there would be
some maintenance issues sooner or later. But no, this makes
sense if if you're trying to picture this, just think of,
I don't know, take a series of drinking cups, turn
them upside down, put some thing on top of them,

(35:01):
and then put them in the water. To make it
really fun. Fill the drinking cups first, then empty them
by drinking whatever it is you put in there. Then
turn them upside down and put them in the water.
Just making fun things. You're not allowed to go to
the bathroom until you This is the summer edition of
forward thinking. Um No, but that you're exactly right, that

(35:21):
would be that would be a way of making like
a model of what this proposal was. Um So, the
airport itself would have floated about three miles off the
tip of Point Loma in San Diego, and they wanted
to call it float Port UH, and it was going
to be connected to the mainland via a tunnel that
would empty out onto Interstate eight. The designers envision Floatport

(35:45):
not just as an airport, but as a shipping facility.
It would also be a mass transit hub for land,
sea and air. It's very ambitious kind of plan and
they presented it to the to the city and in
two thousand three San Diego formally rejected the proposal. They
cited reasons including accessibility, safety, airfield configuration of the part

(36:09):
that that part they were saying the way the the
UM runways would be oriented would be in a north
south direction and really it should be east west for
the best UH best performance considering airflow. But if you
did it east west and you had it off the
point off a point Loma, then it would end up

(36:30):
requiring aircraft to fly in very low over a lot
of neighborhoods. Thus you get that noise pollution again. So
you have this issue like, well, if you do it
north south, pilots are going to have more trouble landing
the aircraft, which is not good. And if you do
it east west and you're going to create more noise pollution,
which if your argument is that an offshore airport creates

(36:50):
less noise pollution, you have invalidated that part of your
support um the accessibility thing. They said, well, we're a
little skeptical that you could read an underground or underwater
tunnel to a floating structure that then attaches to the mainland.
How do you do that in a way where if
the structure can move but the tunnel can't move. There's

(37:13):
an issue there, like, what how does that work? And
even if you could get to work, how expensive would
that be? And how could you make sure that that
structure would remain stable in all sorts of type types
of situations. And so there was just a ton of skepticism,
not to mention the worry about the environmental impact that
was also an issue. But all that skepticism did not

(37:36):
stop another team from putting together a similar proposal a
few years later. Right, So this gets us up to
two thousand nine and Adam England, who was an entertainment lawyer,
also has a couple of IMDb credits to his name.
He's appeared in a couple of films. No relation to England.

(37:57):
I looked it up. He is not related to Freddy Krueger. So,
Freddy Krueger would help make a lot of really great
floating puns. He could certainly make your dreams come true.
So and so he decided to pitch his own floating
airport idea to San Diego. Oh this is the one
with the good name. Yeah. Yeah, So he gathered together

(38:17):
a group of collaborators and pitched the Ocean Works Offshore Airport.
But the good name, I would argue, is his company. Right.
Can we spell this first? Actually, I think it's funnier
if you encounter it this way because it took me
like four seconds to get it, and then I groaned audibly, right,
because when you read it, you don't get the effect
of the audible pun. So it's spelled eu pH l

(38:40):
o t e A. And it's pronounced you floatia. Oh
I was thinking you floaty, you floatia. It is actually
pronounced you floatia, as in like utopia. I'll take you floaty. Actually, yeah,
I'm going to go ahead and jiff this. That's fair.

(39:03):
That's fair. I pronounced Jeff as gift. I'm not going
to argue that you pronounced it you floaty when it's
clearly you floatia. So their design was more than just
an airport. It was a four story floating facility with
an airport for a roof that could house any number
of ventures, including hotels and restaurants, research facilities and more,

(39:23):
as long as you don't mind the noise of an
aircraft landing on top of your house every couple of
minutes for every day. Ever, I don't know how they
would have handled the noise issue for anyone in that facility,
like shooting ranges. Yeah, yeah, maybe um and And to

(39:43):
be fair, this is a proposal that hasn't completely died
as far as I know, England is still pushing for it.
The structure he proposed would be three square miles in
surface area and have two runways. His plan called for
it to be moored ten miles off the coast of
Sandy Diego, with underwater light rail connecting it to the mainland,
or instead of under water light rail if that was

(40:06):
deemed infeasible, going with high speed ferries to just ship
people back and forth from the mainland to the airport
and so on and so forth. According to England, it
would have been more than two hundred million square feet
of office space that would be available which was actually
more than what was available in the city of San

(40:28):
Diego itself, So you could double the amount of office
space if you made it all a big office facility. UM.
And the hope was that it would actually use renewable
energy sources to power the whole thing, including generators that
were using wave motions as well as wind power to
create electricity. And it would also have a desalination plan

(40:49):
to make fresh drinking water from seawater. So it incorporates
a lot of stuff we've talked about here on Forward Thinking.
It's kind of I think we've talked about desalination for
San Diego specific before. Yep, we've talked about and we've
certainly talked about wind and wave power in the previous episodes.
So the idea is that this would be kind of
the the airport of the future that is self sufficient,

(41:12):
which is pretty cool idea. Still a lot of big problems,
big big challenges, big questions like what is what is
the ecological impact of such a thing if you were
to build it. Uh, sure, it's it's generating power in
a in a green way, but is it it's self
green or would it be causing more harm just through
its presence in the ocean. Furthermore, this sounds not unambitious.

(41:37):
How are you going to pay for this? Yeah, so
he was actually already in the process of raising money
for a thing he didn't have clearance to build, but
it was. He figured it would be about twenty billion
dollars to to build this thing. Uh, to me, that
seems a little low, honestly for a four story floating
airport that has two runways, twenty billion seems like it

(41:59):
might actually be a little on the conservative side. But
according to some estimates, San Diego could lose out on
as much as a hundred billion dollars in economic growth
if it doesn't expand its airport by So if it
cost twenty billion dollars and you argue, hey, we're gonna
be out a hundred billion if we don't build something
technically making dollars, yeah, you're you're or you're at least

(42:21):
saving yourself from an eighty billion dollar loss, right, I mean,
if in fact all of those things are true, that's
a big if. The plan, not surprisingly, was met with
a lot of opposition. One of the biggest problems is
that there's no regulatory agency for very large floating structures.

(42:41):
There's there's no law or agency to to deal with that.
You don't know who to ask permission, right exactly, Like
like there's not a light. You go to the license
office and there's not a window for very large floating structures.
So you're kind of stuck. And uh. As of two
thousand thirteen, at least England still working to get permission
to build and operate what was then being called the Oplex. Yeah,

(43:08):
I you know, I don't name them. I just report
on them. But yeah, I don't know if it's still
like a living proposal that's being pushed in San Diego.
If we have any fans in San Diego who are
aware of this, I welcome you to get in touch
with us and let us know. All. The most recent

(43:29):
stuff I could find was from a couple of years ago,
so I don't know so it so it may have
gone belly up, Yes, it might have been beached. This
this one, more than even any of that, just reminds
me too much of water World, honestly, Like, for some reasons,

(43:50):
something about it reminds me of water World. To be fair,
the desalination was for seawater and not for pe Well,
how I mean, can you pe in the sea water?
I mean I have Will the station suspend people in
cages over brine pits? Almost certainly? So? At any rate,

(44:10):
this was this was one of those things that that
when I saw it, I was like, I can't believe
I've never heard of this. I mean, granted, I live
on the other side of the United States, so it's
not like it's an issue that is in the forefront
of my mind. Have you ever flown into San Diego? Yes,
a couple of times. It is an exciting flight out
let me tell you, because you fly out over the ocean,

(44:31):
and when you're flying in, you're coming in over the ocean.
So that's kind of terrifying because because you don't you
don't land on the on the land side of it.
You actually go out over the Pacific, turn back around,
and then land on the on the landing strip. At
least from memory, that's the way it is. I've flown
in on the West Coast several times at several different airports,

(44:52):
so I might be mixing this up. But as I recall,
it was pretty It was a pretty steep takeoff as well,
I think for noise pollution purposes. Um, but yeah, I've
flown in and out of San Diego a couple of times.
It's lovely sitting by the way. I highly recommend visiting.
It's one of my favorites in California. Fantastic, oh Man.

(45:12):
Mexican food in San Diego is amazing, phenomenal. But moving
on to more floating airports, there's also been a couple
of high profile proposals in good old London, so the
Mexican food is probably not as good it is awful.
I have had Mexican food in London and it is
possibly the worst Mexican food I've ever had. It was

(45:33):
also entertaining because I don't know if you know this.
The people, the Brits, they like they like spicy, spicy, spicy,
melt your face off Indian food, right, which actually it's really,
to be fair, it's more like British colonial food, but
they love that. Yet their Mexican food was the most
bland Mexican food I've ever had. I couldn't understand it

(45:54):
at any rate. Another issue they have, besides a lack
of excellent Mexican restaurants in London, is that probably not
there's no shortage of pigs there, but Uh, Heathrow Airport
is really over text, I mean big time soonuper busy
airport definitely, and it's also enormous. It is not laid

(46:16):
out in a very easy way. You have to take
different trains, Like if you land at terminal four and
you need to get the terminal two, you're gonna be
taking a couple of trains um to get there or
a bus. It's not it's not a simple layout and
there's not a whole lot of room for expansion. Although
Heathrow has petitioned to build another runway, it is not

(46:38):
met with a lot of success, met with a lot
of resistance because it's already kind of an issue with
residents about you know, noise pollution, the same reasons we've
talked about already. So there's been a couple of proposals
for an alternative airport. In one case what would be
a supplemental airport, in another case what would be a

(46:59):
complete placement for Heathrow, both of which have shared the
same name. The first proposal was officially called the London
Britannia Airport and it had the political backing of then
London Mayor Boris Johnson. Oh boy, howdy has here, especially
like the day we record this is just after he

(47:20):
has been named the UK Foreign Secretary, in the wake
of the UK leaving the European Union or announcing his
intention to leave the European un and a great number
of politicians leaving office. Yes, Theresa May, the now new
Prime Minister of the UK, came in and cleaned house.
A couple of people resigned, a couple of people were sacked,

(47:43):
and Boris Johnson was given the role of Foreign Secretary
and lots of jokes followed. Boris Johnson has not always
been known as being the most diplomatic of diplomats, and
yet now he has a diplomatic job. I'll tell you
more about Boris Johnson and after we're done with this episode.
So at any rate, he had he threw a lot

(48:06):
of support in for this idea of the the London
Britannia Airport, so much so that the locals began to
refer it to it as Boris Island. It was gonna
be this, uh, this airport built out on the estuary
of the Thames where the Thames meets the North Sea,
and the original one was going to be I think

(48:27):
thirty miles outside of London and was just gonna be
um a relatively modest airport compared to the more recent proposal.
It was going to be a four runway airport. Yeah.
One thing I found interesting, just as a side note,
is that the architecture firm behind this proposal for the
London Britannia Airport was actually Ginsler, who was the same

(48:49):
firm that designed the Shanghai tower that we talked about
in our episode about skyscrapers in vertical cities. Yeah. That's
so there's sort of like they seem out there in
forward looking designs, right, if you want to get some
something that is uh, kind of taking the risky approach,
then uh, Ginsler seems to be like the name in

(49:13):
some of those really you know, futuristic looking and sounding designs.
So this one was formally rejected in two thousand and fourteen. Uh,
and so it's it's kind of, I guess dead in
the water. But it was replaced by an even weirder plan, Yeah,
which which emerged in two thousand thirteen. So the two

(49:33):
thousand thirteen proposal comes out the Airport Commission says no
to the previous version, the four runway version, and this
one also called the London Britannia Airport, so no confusion there,
uh is a six runway airport, so even larger than
the previously announced proposal, but it would be built built

(49:56):
a bit further out in the estuary, fifty miles out
site of London, and it actually originally there were two
different plans. The first plan was the idea of a
real floating airport, but eventually they deemed that that was
impractical because the waters of the estuary are relatively shallow
and it would only really work in deeper water. So

(50:16):
instead they're talking about essentially building an artificial island and
putting the airport on top of it. So yes, and
what wouldn't technically be a floating airport anymore, be an
airport that's out on the water, but it would be
like on its own little island. Um estimated costs are
somewhere around sixty billion dollars or more for this project.

(50:41):
Now they would connect the airport to the mainland through
a bridge for vehicle traffic, as well as an underwater
light rail system to go back to London. And since
it's fifty miles would be a bit of a trek
if you landed there, and this would be an actual
replacement for Heathrow. It's not. This would be like Heathrow

(51:04):
would be shut down and reclaimed by the city, turned
into something else, and this would become London's new primary airport.
You still have Gatwick, I imagine, but yeah, kind of interesting.
Um and the you know, the fact that Heathrow is
considered to be the worst airport in terms of noise

(51:24):
pollution in all of Europe means that there's at least
some support for an airport that would be out over
the water where that noise pollution wouldn't be bothering the
residents and it would presumably improve the quality of life
for a significant number of people living in London. Uh
So there's that argument. But a lot of people have
said this is dependent upon a lot of factors that

(51:46):
we can't be certain of, and we suspect that the
bare minimum cost is going to be sixty billion dollars.
It may very well be that it balloons out of
control once these other factors turn out to be stuff
we didn't anticipate, like getting a nice stable base for
the airport takes a lot more work than they had

(52:08):
thought it would. That's a possibility um, and of course
we also have a lot more opposition, not just political opposition.
Heathrow clearly opposes the idea. They're like, no, we don't
like the idea of being replaced. Please stop, give us
another runway and stop talking about floating airports. And environmental
agencies have also raised a lot of concerns the World

(52:32):
Wildlife Fund to protect all of that precious life in
the Thames Estuary. Well, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to
sound dismissive. Right, Well, you know, it's I don't know
how rich and varied and bio diverse the life in
the estuary is, but I figure it would be less
so with a giant airpot. Yeah, I'm sure it is

(52:52):
worth protecting. So, um, sorry for my jokes at the
expense of the bountiest nature of the Thames. Brian shrimp
living inside the Thames Estuary. Uh, yeah, so that we
may never see this come to pass. But again we're
getting into that real problem of these major cities having
real issues at hitting capacity for their their airports, and

(53:17):
there's a need for more service, but there's a limit
on the options. So it may come to be that
within a decade or so that floating airports in a
few areas are a thing because there's they're the best
of all the available options that are out there. Or
maybe we'll see a switch to other types of fast

(53:39):
travel that are not air travel and that will reduce
our reliance upon air travel. So let's say the hyper
loop becomes a more um realistic option, then you could
see that at least for certain types of travel, like
domestic travel or travel between countries that are very close together,
it might not be as frequent high power ballistic passenger capsules.

(54:03):
You mean shooting people out of a cannon. Maybe. Okay,
well I have one last one to talk about. This
one is a little bit of a cheat because it's
not a runway that's floating. It's a terminal that's floating.
So it's it's the place where people go to gather
before and after they're on a plane, not the place
where planes take off and land. But still kind of cool.

(54:24):
So back in two thousand fourteen, the Akhmad Yanni International
Airport and Indonesia broke ground on an expansion that will
include a floating terminal. Uh So, if it can operate safely,
that might also give some credence to other people who
want to try and pursue similar projects to expand or
replace airports in other cities. But if if it doesn't

(54:46):
include the runway, floating terminal doesn't seem all that inherently
different than a boat, like a cruise ship or something.
And I actually like this idea like that, like this
is the idea out of all of this that kind
of excites me because I'm like, well, if we can
have floating buildings to augment our city escapes, that's that's rad.
Like that, that's pretty okay, especially if if you are

(55:10):
if it's acceptable to walk in and have like an
old sea dog style accent whenever you walk into the building,
We're all into this. Yeah, you know you instead of
ringing a doorbell and saying, hey, how are you be?
Permission to come up bar? Permission granted, and then you
eat you eat sea biscuits and get food, get scurvy. Okay,

(55:32):
so it's not all wine and roses, but you know,
it's got a it's got its own panache. Right at
any rate, this was one of those ideas that when
I saw the article on CNN, I thought, I don't
I don't know how I've never heard of any of
this because I love the retrofuturism of the popular Mechanics piece.

(55:53):
I think that the proposals, while I still have lots
of questions about them, are are interesting. I don't necessarily
think that they are all realistic or pragmatic, but I
love the creative thought that goes into trying to solve
a very difficult, very real problem. UM don't know that

(56:14):
it's the right solution, but you know, it's it's a
definitely a creative one. Yeah. I mean, it's another one
of those things that airports are one of the uglier
parts of what we do. And I don't mean, like
morally uglier, but it's just kind of like that. They're
they're not one of the most pleasant artifacts of human civilization,
yet they're so incredibly necessary for the world to function

(56:37):
as it does. What's the nicest airport you've ever flown into?
Because my answer might surprise you, Uh nicest, I did, like.
I like the Keflavik Airport in Iceland. It was it
was just it was nice. It was quite cool. You know. Uh,
why about you, Lauren, I'm very fond of Atlanta's airports.

(57:00):
Airport's not bad, it's it's really I feel like it's
well organized relatively for an airport. You know, it's relatively
easy to understand where you need to go, even if
it takes a heck of a lot of walking to
get there. Right. Uh, there, there's one in the in
the Midwest, somewhere, either Detroit or Chicago. I want to
say that Troit a lovely like light tunnel that you
travel through. It's like being in like Willy Wonka's a

(57:22):
tunnel of terror, but better. Detroit is my favorite airport. Okay,
maybe this is the one that I'm thinking of. They
have like super fancy, futuristic looking bars there where it's like,
like the architecture is amazing. They have a have a
light rail that takes you from one end of the
terminal to the other. That is what I'm thinking of.
Detroit is that's a great airport. Surprisingly, it surprised me

(57:43):
because I had never been to Detroit before, and I
had all the stereotypical prejudice about Detroit. Went to the airport,
thought this is the best airport I've been in. The
second best, uh is not because the amenities, but just
because of the charm, would be Kna, Hawaii, because it's
all outdoors. You land, you walk, you walk down a

(58:04):
set of stairs from your airplane to the tarmac, and
you walk right and it's all like the thatched roof
kind of little pavilions that you walk into. So it's
all outside. If the weather is nice, it's lovely. Although
the last time I flew out it was pouring down rain. Um.
But you know, who knows. Maybe in the future will
say the nicest airport I've ever been in was off

(58:26):
the coast of such and such. That'd be kind of cool.
Uh So, guys, if you have any questions, queries you have,
you've got some comments about this concept, maybe again, if
you're in San Diego and you know more about the
current status of that proposal, right us, let us know
what you think. Our email addresses FW thinking at how

(58:47):
Stuff Works dot com, or you can always drop us
a line on social media. On Twitter, we are FW thinking.
If you search fw thinking in Facebook, our profile should
pop right up. You can leave us a message there.
We look forward to hearing from you and talk to
you again really soon. For more on this topic in

(59:09):
the future of technology, visit forward Thinking dot com. Brought
to you by Toyota let's go places,

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