Friday, February 06, 2009

Great Moments in Aviation, Part I

In the Western tradition, the first story about human aviation was the Greek legend of Icarus and Daedalus.

Daedalus had built the Labyrinth for King Minos of Crete. Minos, being an ungrateful and suspicious sort, imprisoned Daedalus in a high tower with his son Icarus. Daedalus got to thinking -- when you're shut up in a tower, you've nothing better to do -- and came up with a very clever plan. He figured that if he couldn't escape Crete by sea, then he'd fly out like a bird. How hard could it be?

So he got a bunch of feathers, and some wax, and made two pairs of man-sized bird's wings. One pair for Daedalus, and one pair for his son. At this point I feel compelled to mention that Daedalus had a wife and another son as well. Had they already escaped? Had he grown weary of their company, and decided to leave them behind? The legend doesn't say. It just says that just before they flew the coop, Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too high, lest the sun melt the wax of his wings.

And so, they took to the air. The legend says that they passed Samos, Delos, and Lebyhthos -- which is a damned odd path. Those three islands don't lie in any kind of line. If you visit each in that order, then you've basically flown a victory lap around the Aegean Sea, including a pass by Crete between Delos and Lebynthos. Perhaps they flew by old Minos' palace to taunt him as they escaped. Anyway, when they were passing Lebynthos, Icarus was having so much fun that he soared up towards heaven, and exposed his wings to too much sun, and the wings came apart. This left poor Icarus to plummet towards the Aegean from a height where there's not a whole lot of difference between a splash and a splat.

Now, this was meant to be read as a morality tale, cautioning the young and hot-headed to heed the wise words of their elders. The details were never meant to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, it holds a place in my list of Great Moments in Aviation, since it was the first story where men used machines of their own making to take to the air.

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