Did Icarus Beat Orville and Wilbur?
Perhaps the most detailed mythical account of early flight comes to us courtesy of the ancient Greeks. The tale of an inventor named Daedalus and his impulsive, thrillseeking son, Icarus, has entered our cultural lexicon as a caution against daring to rise as high as the gods.
As the Greeks told the fable, Daedalus and Icarus fled from King Minos of Crete, who had ordered that the pair be arrested for an act of treachery. The two hid in a cave high up in the cliffs overlooking the rocky Cretan shoreline. From there Daedalus spent hours watching eagles soar in the powerful wind currents that pushed upward from the sea, and puzzled over how to craft wings that would enable him and Icarus to fly away from their pursuers. After experimenting with one material after another, Daedalus decided that he would fashion wings from the same feathers that helped the eagles fly.
Once he and Icarus had collected enough feathers—and given a whole new meaning to the term “bald eagle,” no doubt—Daedalus began to press them onto two beeswax-coated, wingshaped frames. Before their escape, and with King Minos’s soldiers at the mouth of their cave, Daedalus gave his son a hasty preflight briefing: Fly halfway between heaven and the sea. Don’t fly too low, he warned Icarus, or the wings could become soaked and heavy from the sea spray. And don’t fly too high, or the heat of the sun might melt the wax and destroy the wings.
Of course, we know how the story ended. Icarus ignored his father’s warning and flew higher and higher, until the sun heated the wax and feathers and the boy fluttered into the sea. The Greeks read into the story a stern caution against arrogantly thinking that it is possible to devise tools that can reach the gods. (The rest of us hear a second message, too: Kids never listen to a thing their parents say.)
The myth of Daedalus and Icarus inspired centuries of aviation innovators, but, ironically, might have hindered our progress toward flight by encouraging generations of minds to focus somewhat slavishly on copying the wing structure and flying style of birds. The determination to mimic bird flight rather than invent our own form of flying delayed the progress of human flight until the eighteenth century.
Not So Mythical
As plausible as that story may have sounded to ancient ears, virtually all scholars and airplane designers agree that the story of Daedalus and Icarus has little or no basis in truth. One notable exception, however, was the renowned science fiction writer H. G. Wells, who insisted that the story was largely based on fact. His claim seemed to gain ground in 1900, when an English expedition uncovered evidence on Crete that possibly confirmed the details of the tale. Still, most pilots are skeptical that a man could have soared on wings made of pasted feathers.
For the Birds
The tale of Daedalus and Icarus is appealing because those of us who are crazy about flying wish that we could strap on wings made of eagle feathers and fly away. The story illustrates the deceptive simplicity of bird flight and the maddening ease with which birds accomplish what men and women have yearned to do for eons.
By the Book
Lift is one of four forces of flight that we’ll describe in more detail in Part 3, “In the CockpiL" It is the pressure created by airplane wings that counteracb the pull of gravity and enables planes to fly. In an airplane, thrust is the force, created by a propeller or jet engine, that produces speed.
If we had listened to Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, we might never have learned to fly. Borelli, a seventeenth-century aviation enthusiast, speculated that birds flew by combining the flapping of their wings with an intricate twisting motion of each feather. Because people could never duplicate the complicated motion, Borelli predicted we would never fly.
So how do the birds do it? In a few words, they combine up-and-down Happing movements with a front-to-back rowing motion. Together, the coordinated movement of the wings give birds upward lift as well as forward thrust. Add to that basic motion some intricate differences in each wing’s independent motion—and mix in a timely flick of rudder-like tail feathers—and birds are capable of feats of maneuverability and aerobatics that have transfixed and baffled some of the greatest minds in history.
Even now, our rational understanding of the complex forces at work doesn’t erase the sense of wonder we humans feel at watching birds wheeling and flitting through the sky.
Leonardo da Vinci, Aviation Pioneer
Here’s a quiz: Which of the following applies to Leonardo da Vinci?
a) Designed the first machine gun.
b) Conceived a workable submarine.
c) Wrote in handwriting that had to be read using a mirror.
d) Designed an early version of a helicopter.
e) Designed a machine to manufacture gold sequins.
Answer: All of the above!
Surprised? No wonder. But the fact is that Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the epitome of the “Renaissance Man,” and he generally was able to master anything he put his mind to. Leonardo brought an artist’s keen eye to the pursuit of flight. He spent hours in the hills around the village of Vinci studying the motions of birds and visualizing the forces at work as they flew. He sketched what he saw, and when he died he left behind massive portfolios of sketches and notes that researchers continue to study and marvel over today.
Leonardo designed some of the most ingenious devices of his age, including this “flying machine” that was to enable a man to fly like a bird. Unfortunately, it didn’t fly.
Leonardo was no idle sky gazer; he was a skilled engineer and inventor whose innovations included radically speculative creations such as a flapping-wing “ornithopter” and another contraption that resembled a cross between a screw and a parasol. Believe it or not, this was a primitive precursor to the modern helicopter. As if Leonardo’s engineering and mechanical genius weren’t enough to distinguish him, he also possessed a surgeon’s understanding of the human body, not only in its physical form but in the mechanical demands that motion placed on its structure of muscles and bones.
And those accomplishments don’t even touch on the artistic genius that some say made him the finest artist in all of Western history! Gee, was there anything this guy was not good at?
Leonardo’s “ornithopter” was a complicated contraption that relied on a person’s flapping a set of mechanical wings.