Originally created 02/13/98

Flight may have begun before Wrights



In 1969, while sorting through a box of old exhibits in the basement of the Cairo museum, Egyptologist Khalil Messiha found what appeared to be a 2,200-year-old model airplane, complete with wings, landing gear and an aerodynamically designed body.

The object had been found in a 2,000-year-old tomb near Saqqara in 1898. The archaeologist was stunned. What would a perfectly scaled model of an airplane be doing in a tomb of such antiquity?

His conclusion: "Apparently the ancients possessed long-forgotten technologies," he said. Egypt's Ministry of Culture agreed. A committee set up to investigate the matter concluded that the 7-inch-long model, built of light sycamore wood and weighing only 1.11 ounces, seemed to incorporate principles of aircraft design that had taken modern engineers decades of experimentation to discover and perfect.

Moreover, they found, the glider worked. More than two millennia after its construction, it still sailed easily through the air at only the slightest flick of the hand.

Some researchers suggest that the model was intended as a toy or a weathervane and that its apparent aerodynamic sophistication is a mere coincidence. But supporters of the airplane theory contend that ancient Egyptians frequently made scale models of things they built, including temples, chariots and ships. They claim the glider is a miniature of a full-size ancient aircraft.

The Egyptians were not alone in leaving behind tantalizing hints of ancient flight. "To operate a flying machine is a great privilege," according to a Babylonian text, the Hal-katha. "Knowledge of flying is most ancient, a gift of the gods of old for saving lives."

Another Babylonian work, the Sifr'ala of Chaldea, contains remnants of a detailed account of how to construct and fly an airplane. Although the text dates back more than 5,000 years, it contains specific comments on copper and graphite airplane parts and describes the effects of wind resistance on stability.

In 468 B.C., Greek mathematician Archytas built a wooden pigeon that actually flew. Hailed as a wonder of the ancient world, the pigeon was powered by an internal mechanism of balanced weights and a mysterious, unknown propulsive agent.

The early Chinese also had a lively interest in flight. Records inscribed on tablets some 2,000 years old tell of how Emperor Shun, who reigned between 2258 and 2208 B.C., built a flying craft to escape a plot to kill him.

The writings of ancient India are perhaps the richest in tales of aviation. The Mahabharata, a work that was probably begun in the fourth century B.C., tells of an "aerial chariot, with sides of iron and clad with wings."

Ramyayana, the great Indian epic poem dating from the third century B.C., describes a double-deck circular aircraft with portholes and a dome -- a configuration reminiscent of 20th-century reports of flying saucers. Fueled by a strange yellowish white liquid, the craft was said to travel at the "speed of wind," attain heights that made the ocean look like "a small pool of water," and stop and hover motionless in the sky.

The New World is not without its own "ancient airplane" mysteries. For example, a 1,200-year-old gold trinket resting in a bank vault in Bogota, Colombia, looks for all the world like an airplane, right down to tail fins, cockpit and a pair of bomb-laden wings. Some experts who have examined the enigmatic artifact compare its features to modern jet aircraft. "It looks just like a very modern, delta-winged, steep-climbing jet fighter," said Dr. Ivan T. Sanderson, the late biologist and renowned investigator of the paranormal.

Syndicated writer Randall Floyd lives in Augusta.