In today’s newspaper, I came across a story that gave me pause. The headline read, Pilot safely lands disabled plane at Pearson Field. Good for him, I thought. The situation could easily have turned tragic. There was an accompanying photo showing his airplane canting to the left thanks to a damaged landing gear, but there was no further damage discernible. Whew. Close call, but he walked away from the near-crash with the only bruise being to his ego.
The second paragraph of the article shed a little more light on the situation. Now he needs to fix the experimental plane that he built himself, it said.
Oh. Really, now.
There are fewer things scarier than the words “experimental” and “airplane”, especially when they are strung together in the same sentence. Worst of all is when “experimental” is the adjective that describes “airplane,” the noun. Because seriously, is it really a good idea to mess around with the laws of physics? I still consider the fact that man is able to fly at all nothing short of a miracle. I’ve heard all about the mechanics of flight. Lift and weight and thrust and drag. Pitch, roll and yaw. Rudders and elevators and ailerons. I’m a reasonably smart man with a college degree and a pretty good grasp of what makes the world go ‘round (hint: in college it’s ramen noodles; when you’re older and less indebted, it’s probably love. Or alcohol. Or love of alcohol). But when it comes to this whole flying thing, I will never for the life of me understand how it is possible to slip the surly bonds of earth. I mean, the apple hit Sir Isaac Newton on the head, right? It didn’t drop from the tree and hover inches above his cranium. And a piece of fruit is a far cry from a 747. Gravity is gravity, period. I don’t know how we are able to so callously cheat it. If you think I’m a nervous flyer, by the way, that’s an understatement and a half.
So naturally, I can’t help but feel that it’s just not a good idea to tinker around with something that, by its very nature, already seems impossible. Airplanes take off and they land, somehow, and mostly without a hitch. Do we really want to be messing around building experimental aircraft? The dictionary defines experimental as “tentative”, and it’s derived from the word experiment (obviously) which is, of course, nothing more than “a test.” Somebody who conducts an experiment is examining the validity of a hypothesis (an assumption!!) or determining the effectiveness of something previously untried.
Let me get this straight, then. This guy named Mike, a carpenter who lives north of Camas, decides that he’s handy with tools, but building dining room tables is for the birds. Birds. Sky. Flight. Pitch, roll, and yaw. Suddenly he’s out in his garage, piecing together an aircraft that in theory should fly, because…well…it’s got wings. And a propeller. And looks kinda like a Cessna. The design has not been proven, mind you. But he does have some piloting experience. So, gosh darn it, he takes off in a plane whose pieces came out of a box, assuming that he will be able to defy gravity successfully.
Talk about a leap of faith. Apparently, he’s never heard of the legend of Icarus. According to Greek mythology, Daedalus, a craftsman (hmm…is it something in their blood?) who was imprisoned on the island of Crete with his son, Icarus, for aiding and abetting the enemy of King Minos, decided that he’d had enough of the joint and hatched a brilliant plan of escape. He constructed two pairs of wings from wax and feathers and, before taking to the skies, said, “Boy, make sure your seatbelt is securely fastened and your seat back and tray table are in their full upright positions.”
Icarus was understandably confused, and when pressed for clarification, daddy said, “Never mind. Just don’t fly too close to the sun.”
Once airborne, Icarus was so overjoyed with the fact that he was flying that he didn’t even grumble over the lack of so much as a bag of peanuts (paving the way for Southwest Airlines centuries later). “Look at me, look at meeeeee!!!” he exclaimed gleefully, soaring ever higher and higher. Ignoring his father’s warning, Icarus flew too close to the sun, melting the wax from his wings. He then plunged to his death into the Icarian Sea far below, which is okay if you’re all gung-ho over having an ocean named after you, but otherwise pretty much sucks.
Icarus was, in many ways, just like Mike: a dude with a hypothesis. And look where that got him: at the bottom of Davy Jones’ locker. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad that our local pilot-slash-guy-with-a-death-wish walked away from his experience unharmed. I applaud his ingenuity and skill, and admire that can-do attitude. I just hope, for his own sake, the next time he feels an urge to reach for the heavens, that he leaves the flying to the professionals and their non-experimental aircraft.
Even if there’s no logical reason why those aircraft don’t fall from the skies, lift and thrust and drag be damned…