One Small Step for Man = One Giant Step for Man
For those of us who fly in our dreams, rarely is there any flapping of the arms, nor are there hidden jets or superhero capes. No air, really. The means of propulsion, even for daytime nihilists, is some kind of faith–just a matter of knowing it can be done–that keeps the body suspended and moving. And as that faith wanes, maybe from some creeping knowledge that it must be a dream, instead of plummeting to the ground there’s just a slow, soft descent. Sometimes there’s only enough faith to hover a few inches or feet above the ground. But those inches are miles when compared to how high we expect to fly after our morning cup of coffee. In the waking world we are utterly certain that any step off a mountain, roof, or table will have the same result: blind obedience to the draconian laws of physics.
We can fantasize that if we could just muster up enough faith, we could launch ourselves off some precipice and hover there like Wile E. Coyote before he notices the earth’s no longer beneath him. But to go any further with the fantasy is to feel gravity’s tug. No one will ever persuade us to jump–without a parachute–from anything much higher than the kitchen counter. Fasting, lashing the flesh, walking on coals: these are the limits of what the faithful are asked to do. What religion or cult has ever suggested to its followers that with enough faith they could fly?
And yet every century has had its birdmen, people with enough faith in the possibility of humans taking flight–and enough faith in whatever accoutrements they had devised–to take the literal plunge. Had they heard of a leading edge? No. Was angle of attack a part of their vocabulary? Less than unlikely. Lift and drag? Forget about it.
The tower jumpers of centuries past had a kind of faith that separates those who dream of flight from those who try it.
It’s hard to talk about humans trying to reach birdy heights without first touching on the Greek myth of Daedalus and his young egg, Icarus.
But the tale has more bearing on our story than it might first seem.
Daedalus, a metalsmith and inventor of great talent, and Icarus were incarcerated by King Minos, on the island of Crete. To escape, Daedalus assembled wings of feathers, wax, and whatnot and learned to fly. He made another set for Icarus and, before they took off, advised his son not to fly too near the sun, lest the wax melt. “No fancy steering by star or constellation, follow my lead!” as the poet Ovid puts it in the Rolfe Humphries translation. And so they flew, dazzling farmers and boatmen below, who thought them gods. Needless to say, Icarus was having such a heady time that he couldn’t resist flying sunward–the wax melted and he plunged to a watery death.
Despite the unhappy ending, the tale seems to inspire flight-minded people of all kinds. Ballooning, aviation, and bungee-jumping companies have named themselves after the wax-winged hero, and Icarus Canopies is perhaps the best-known parachute manufacturer in the world.
The fact that these companies are unafraid to use the name of a figure whose fearless adventurism led directly to his death can only be explained by the fact that those attracted to flight tend to be (or want to be) fearless adventurers. Leo Valentin, whose jumps (and death) in the 1950s inspired a slew of imitators in the second half of the century, did not read the tale of Icarus as a cautionary one. Instead he saw it as “amplified and glorified to strike the imagination, to satisfy the taste for the marvelous.” The same stores that sell Icarus skydiving gear also sell bumper stickers that say no fear, no limit.
You might think a skydiving company could just as easily name itself after Daedalus, who did, after all, manage to fly and live, but it seems that for those who take to the air, the name Icarus resonates more with the drive to greater extremes than that of his more confidence-inspiring father. Perhaps the school-marminess of Daedalus’s warning displeases them. (The Daedalus drop zone in Germany is the exception. Its owner, Christoph Aarns, who flies the rigid Skyray, is safety-obsessed and extends the bumper sticker by two words: no fear, no limit: no brains.
The Greeks certainly didn’t have a monopoly on such tales. Myths of human flight abound in almost every ancient culture. The Aztecs had their eagle-knight; the Incas spoke of Ayar Utso, who flew to the sun; and the Hindus have the birdman god Garuda, as well as the story of Jatayu, whose flight closely parallels the story of Icarus. The tomb of Ramses II shows him wearing wings–to what end we’ll never know–and the Norse had another flying tinkerer in Wayland, a blacksmith who slapped together some wings, again for the purpose of escaping, only to wind up in a Wagner opera. But the story of Daedalus, in its more complete form, does more for our history of flight than just express the human dream of soaring and warn against trying to make that dream a reality.
One subplot of the story more precisely demonstrates what would happen to the first men who tried to fly.
How was it that Daedalus came to be imprisoned in the first place?
Well, he was taking care of his nephew Talos, who one day noticed the usefulness of a jawbone for sawing things in two. Talos forged one in iron, thus inventing the saw. Daedalus, who claimed to have invented the tool himself, was either worried that Talos would become future competition or just plain jealous. He led Talos to the Acropolis, ostensibly to show him the view, and there shoved him off the roof of Athena’s temple. There was no flying for Talos, just a deadly drop–though some say he turned into a partridge after his death.
What better leaping-off point, as it were, for this history than that of a mortal fall from some high, stationary place? For most of human history, those who tried to fly experienced something similar.
Sorting out what in our written history is pure myth, what is myth based on fact, and what is plain old fact is a notoriously difficult task, and so it’s impossible to say who was the first person to make an attempt at flight. But the first possibly plausible account comes from those most ancient of the ancients, the Chinese, and may also tell us of the first use of a parachute. According to the Bamboo Annals, the Emperor Shun, as a boy, was imprisoned by the enemies of his father. Somehow he managed to cobble together a bird suit and either leapt out of a tower and flew to freedom or flapped his way over a prison wall. His interest in air travel apparently extended into adulthood, when he stepped off another tower and, with the help of two large, conical hats, made it to the ground without injury.
As with the printed word, explosives, and pasta, the Chinese were centuries ahead of the rest of the world at putting men in the air. Sometime in the sixth century a.d., the emperor Kao Yang began experimenting with the power of large kites to lift the human body. With the typical wisdom of a monarch, he did not use himself as a subject, as Emperor Shun had, but used his subjects as subjects–his imprisoned enemies, to be exact. The emperor forced these kite-accessoried captives to jump from a high tower on the outskirts of the city of Yeh. The kites proved unhelpful, except for one made in the shape of an owl, which placed its payload, the prisoner Yuan Huang-t’ou, on the ground unscathed. For his pains he was locked up again.
The pairing of wind and royalty remains intact across centuries and continents. “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” rails King Lear against the storm, according to Shakespeare. Perhaps, though, Lear was echoing words shouted with more sincerity, and urgency, by his father, the historical King Bladud, in the early years of the ninth century b.c. (The king was also known as Lud Hubibras, which has nothing to do with the etymology of the word hubris, but it would make sense if it did.) Bladud was educated in Athens, built the city of Bath, England, and supposedly dabbled in black magic. His own parents banished him when they discovered he was a leper, and he roamed the countryside till the day he chased a mad pig into a pond of muck. The muck cured the prince (as well as the pig), and he was soon accepted at home, where he eventually ruled for twenty years. He built the baths of Bath so that others might enjoy healing similar to his. Whether it was with the assistance of necromancy or science that the king hoped to fly from the Apollo tower in what is now known as London, we will never know. And so we will never know what it was that failed him when he made this jump with wings never described by his contemporaries: the wind did not crack its cheeks quite enough to keep the sovereign aloft–’twas his neck that cracked instead.
English historians tended to use Bladud’s tale as an admonishment and a warning to those who strive to outdo God. Some centuries later, Percy Enderbie, the author of Cambria Triumphans, or Brittain in its Perfect Lustre, a history of England, felt free to describe Bladud’s wings as made with wax and blamed the lord’s downfall on his nearness to the sun–“a just reward for his temerity.”
In ancient Greece and Rome, flights to the death were not always made by choice. In the first decade or two of the first century a.d., Strabo described in his Geography an annual ritual that took place on the island of Leucas. To honor Apollo, the Leucadians would take a criminal to a precipice some 2,000 feet above the sea for the purposes of sacrifice/setting him free. (Sappho, the poet, supposedly leapt from this same cliff, as did many others, to cure her love.) Should the offering survive the fall, fishermen would pick him up and take him to other lands. Having learned from repetition, one guesses, that merely attaching wings or feathers would lead prisoners to certain death–little sport in that–the islanders also tried tying live birds to the unfortunates before giving them a push. The rate of survival is not recorded.
The historian Marcus Antonius Sabellicus, who published a history of the world in 1504, tells us that during Caesar’s reign, men imitated birds and managed to leave the ground. At least the notion that such things were possible stuck around till Nero’s day, a.d. 54—68. The Sophist and Nero contemporary Dio Chrysostom wrote that Nero would, on occasion, order a man to fly, and as no one would dare disobey such a command, courtiers would keep the man around for some time and pretend he had the ability. Dio Chrysostom does not explain how the chosen birdman escaped demonstrating his supposed skills. Suetonius, who also lived during Nero’s reign, tells us that during the “Great Festival,” an actor attempting his first flight as Icarus in the Daedalus and Icarus ballet “fell beside Nero’s couch and spattered him with blood.” Sadly, Suetonius does not tell us whether this was a real flight or just an act, if the blood was real blood or just tomato sauce, or whether the bespattering delighted or angered the emperor.
The tyrants of yesteryear managed to contribute to the history of attempted flight even when abusing power in ways other than ordering people to flap or fly. The Persian king Shapur I, who lived in the third century a.d., once had a lovely tower built for himself and feared that others might be moved to requisition one themselves. So, anticipating by 1,300 years the style of Ivan the Terrible–who blinded the architect who built Saint Basil’s Cathedral–Shapur ordered his architect to build the tower in such a way that when it was finished he would remain stuck on top. The architect, in no position to reject the offer, requested only that he have enough wood to build a shack to protect himself from vultures. Once the tower was complete, the architect hewed himself a pair of wings with the wood and, with a little help from a strong wind, flew to his escape. (And as for Ivan the Terrible–he treated winged men as brutally as he treated his architects. He executed a man who had the poor luck to survive a jump from a tower wearing wings made of wood and cloth. The event caused the tsar to declare all attempts at flight unnatural.)
In the middle of the ninth century a.d., several Islamic scholar/adventurers continued the quest for human flight, albeit in a more voluntary fashion. Cordova, at the heart of Moorish Spain, was experiencing something of a renaissance, and as it came to be known as Europe’s intellectual center, it was the perfect place to exhibit the latest aviation technology. To Armen Firman (pronounced “Air-man Firm-man,” let’s just say) this was a huge canvas cloak, which he donned and leapt with from one of the city’s towers. Witnesses tell us that the cloak managed to break Firman’s fall enough for him to survive, though not without some scuffing of the flesh.
You’d think these witnesses would share a few more details, but they do not. One of them, though, was a young scholar named Abbas Ibn Firnas. Firnas had come to Cordova to teach music, went on to become a chemist, a physicist, and an astronomer, managed to turn sand into glass, and invented a timekeeping device. Eventually he, too, turned his keen mind to the challenges of aviation. Twenty-three years after Firman made his short drop, Firnas built wings made of feathers mounted on a wooden framework. According to spectators gathered on a nearby mountain, Firnas threw himself off a high point and managed to glide for some distance before stalling and sinking straight to the ground. Firnas injured his back and blamed the less-than-complete success on his having forgotten to use a tail–since that’s what birds land on. Firnas died more than a decade later, reportedly from complications with his back. But between his flight and his death, the inventor built a mechanical planetarium, complete with moving planets. Perhaps he was after the view Icarus had as he approached the sun. If he’s looking down on us now, he’ll be pleased to see the statue of himself on the road to Baghdad’s airport.
As we move forward through history, and myth solidifies into reportage, the results of these experiments take a decided turn toward the negative. In the first years of the second millennium another scholar, the brilliant lexicographer Al-Djawhari of Turkistan, had made his way to Nisabur in Arabia. It was there that he announced from the top of a mosque that he was about to make history. He did. Wearing two giant wooden wings, he leapt into the air and fell immediately to his death.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers by Michael Abrams. Copyright © 2006 by Michael Abrams. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.