The recurring fantasies of my childhood were dreams of flight. I doubt I differed from other children in my imaginings, and in my childish way I seriously tried to achieve flight. I jumped from the garage roof into snowbanks. I scaled trees and cliffs. I swung on ropes. It’s a good thing my mother never learned just how hard I worked at leaving the earth. Sprained ankles and bruised ribs eventually convinced me that my body was earthbound even if my mind was not. I turned to model airplanes. I lived inside those lovely, light, buoyant structures. They carried me with them into the sky. My inner eye gazed down on the land from their vantage above. This craving to fly is bred in the bone of our species. The old legends come out of the past with such conviction that we know some core of truth must undergird them. In Chapter 2 I refer to documented experiments with flight in the ninth and eleventh centuries. The Chinese flew humans in kites as early as the sixth century. One of the oldest and oddest intimations of early flight came out of the Cairo Museum in 1969. An Egyptian doctor named Khalil Messiha was studying the museum’s collection of ancient bird models. He found that all the models but one were similar. That one was made of sycamore wood. It was a little thing with a seven-inch wingspan. It caught Messiha’s attention because he saw it through the eyes of his childhood. He remembered the shapes and forms he had worked with when he built model airplanes as a boy. This was not a bird at all; it was a model airplane, and that was impossible. Yet the other birds had legs; this had none. The other birds had painted feathers; this had none. The other birds had horizontal tail feathers like a real bird. Perhaps that was the most important difference. Birds do not have to be stable in flight because they can correct their direction; but a model airplane needs a vertical rudder to keep it moving straight.
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