Vollis Simpson's Whirligig Madness

and the clean green future of aviation

All of these stores, including the Whirligig Museum and gift shop, were closed. No souvenirs for us, then, aside from the mug I got with my stout at Casitas. Photo by Jennifer Reall.

“Silly Rabbit, Trix Are for Kids!”

Wilson, NC, is mostly closed down on an early Monday afternoon. Casitas Brewing was open, but their scheduled food truck was late, so I topped off my tank with an ice cream sandwich that had fake-strawberry sprinkles around the side. I said they tasted like Strawberry Quik; my wife maintained that they were more like Trix. I could feel my pancreas writhing in distress.

We walked off the sugar by going around the block. Worrell’s Nautical Novelties, two doors down from Worrell’s Seafood, and across the street from a store called Selkie’s all indicated that there should have been salt water nearby. According to all maps I have so far consulted, however, Wilson is over a hundred miles from the ocean.

Wilson’s Homegrown Miyazaki

The whimsy level increased even further when we strolled over to Whirligig Park, where more than a dozen of Vollis Simpson’s spinning metal creations stood on top of metal poles, high above the blazing sidewalks. Check out the Gallery at the link above for more high-resolution photos.

These sculptures are modular, almost fractal, with spinners embedded inside of other spinners. Their interactions with the wind form complex systems. At least in my limited observations, no one breeze could set all of them spinning at the same time, perhaps because their vibrations interfered with one another through the frames, so that when one started, another would slow and stop. I don’t know; physics is not really my thing.

They reminded me of the fanciful aircraft that populate the animated films of Hiyao Miyazaki, especially Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso, and the dream sequences of The Wind Rises. Vollis Simpson started out as an eccentric, building things on his own farm to keep himself occupied during retirement, but then he got “discovered,” and by the time he was 90, the New York Times was calling him a junkyard poet, which is pretty good for a hometown boy.

The Great Electric Airplane Race

As much as that title sounds like it could be a Ghibli film, it’s actually an episode of NOVA from 2019. Aircraft have been more or less static for decades, but now electric motors are revolutionizing their designs. They’re so small they can be put almost anywhere, not just supplementing but replacing fixed-wing control surfaces like flaps, and creating new possibilities.

There are battery-powered short hoppers, hybrids, hydrogen fuel cells, even concept planes powered entirely by solar. None of them will be doing transcontinental flights anytime soon, but collectively they will create a whole new ecosystem. According to the show, there are five thousand small regional airpoirts in the US, most of them under-used for decades, and a shortage of pilots. Programs like the Aviation Academy at Andrews High School here in Greensboro are hoping to provide those pilots, and diversify the aviation workforce at the same time.

I did not go into detail about the air taxi my characters Mateo and Glory took to the spaceport in “When the Hawkweed Blooms” last summer, but it was automated, and it was definitely electric.

As I cross the yard towards the street where the aircab is waiting, I pluck some of the hot-pink mallow blossoms for the baby to play with. She sticks one of them in her mouth and gums it to colourful pieces with a salivary smile. The others we leave in the cab to perfume it for the next passengers.

(It was a Canadian magazine. That’s how they spell “colorful.”)


Finally, no visit to the future would be complete without a ride on an airship, that bastard offspring of the airplane and the hot-air balloon. They’re big, they’re slow, and they’re cool, in the climate-mitigation sense. They have potentially huge lifting power, replacing lots of trucks, and for cargo, who cares how slow they are?

The future of transportation needs to be a distributed mix of every technology we have, optimized for its particular environment. There may even be a future for the horse and buggy.


As a quick note, I think now that I’m back in the saddle, we’ll leave off of the podcast re-postings with last Friday’s interview with Eric Horstmann. For now, at least. If you’re just dying to hear more, though, please let me know.

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Next week, more small-town scientific / historical tourism, at Bailey’s Country Doctor Museum. I promise you, it is much cooler than it sounds.