I've got a steampunkish story with my protagonist stuck on a very high plateau. I need to get the hero from the top to the bottom with a cargo. Typically, I think the steampunk thing would be to use a hot air balloon or a dirigible, but I was thinking sailplane or glider. The only problem is I don't know how much weighta sailplane could reasonably be expected to haul since the design has to be pretty crude.
I have yet to finalize what the cargo is. I originally thought silks, but I think something perishable would be better so that the hero needs to get moving. It also has to be worth transporting, so fruits and veggies aren't going to work. Fine wine or alcohol would be too bulky. Spices might work, but I think I'd need quite a bit to be profitable (although saffron might be good). That leaves me with drugs. I'm not exactly sure how I feel about my rogue hero being a drug smuggler/transporter (since the drugs themselves wouldn't be illegal).
Any ideas on how much weight a crude sailplane could plausibly carry or a good cargo to transport?
You can get a little creative with this one if you don't mind a bit of maths. If you look up lift to drag and glide ratios for different types of aircraft, guesstimate how slick your plane is and what it's wingspan is, you can work out roughly what it's flying weight will be (which, minus the weight of the plane, is payload). Extrapolate this to the height of your protag's plateau and you get the distance he'll fly (though this assumes a constant starting speed, so the reality will differ as he accelerates on the initial push-off-and-fall).
You could also try asking this at various aviation enthusiast forums, where members will fight amongst each other to give you the most accurate answer. Even a model aviation forum might bring out a few knowledgeable hobbyists.
Berries found only on the plateau and do not last might be a good cargo. People pay for something rare. There are many types of fruits that are highly perishable and would never survive wagon trip. Gliding would eliminate a whole lot of travel time. If you catch the winds right(lots of up drafts), it might remove a couple day's travel so the berries would arrive fresh.
My thoughts also went immediately from “drugs” to medicines. That could also be why your character is in a hurry? Spices are good as they are valuable in small quantities, but they aren’t very perishable as long as they are dry. As David S stated before, silk gives you handy glider-building material. Why not use all three, and perhaps some ambiguous miscellaneous items. Merchants definitely travelled with more than one type of cargo. Silk, spices, and medicinal herbs all came from Asia in the ancient world, you might be able to use something like that. Of course ancient Asia also had gunpowder made from common kitchen ingredients, hmmm…
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