Thursday, January 15, 2009

It's a Bird it's a Plane...

No, it's both. Today's events on the Hudson River will certainly change the way most airline passengers view birds, and of course flying. The next time you are up in the air and see a bird, the last thing you'll want to do is marvel at how clear your view is. Instead, you might want to make peace with God because there may be no Hudson River beneath for an uneventful emergency landing. You can curse those birds for flying too closely, but remember, we are intruders competing for the space that rightfully belongs to them. Humans were not designed to fly. We were designed to traverse the earth. It's our domain. I haven't seen a flock of eagles or bats trying to take over the freeways yet. So what business does man have choking up the domain of our feathered friends with loud engines and propellers? Arguably, man's desire for flight has been driven by needs, and wants. The need for pleasure, speed, military expedition, and sheer ingenuity has seen the journey of flight make the leap from mythological musing to rockets and fighter jets.

The fascination of humans with flight did not begin with the Wright brothers or Montgolfer. Man's fascination with flying can be traced back to pre-historic times. Ever since man saw insects and birds, there has been that nagging desire to ascend into the skies and glide gracefully. Almost every culture has toyed with the idea of flying and has tried to interpret their fantasies through religion and myths. Ancient deities in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor were often depicted as having wings. In ancient Hebrew, the cherubim and seraphim depicted on the Ark of the Covenant had wings. Biblical angels are also described as having wings. Even in most cultures, witches and other such dark forces are transported by flight. Some of the earliest records of flight can be found in Sanskrit text, which discuss "Rathas" vehicles which may have been designed for aerial flight. They were able to move at amazing speed with a three-person crew. Designed from gold, silver, and other precious metals, these vehicles had the capabilities of space travel.

Besides the preoccupation of Vedas with flight, other ancient civilizations also had their musings with flight. Mesopotamians were consumed by a desire for air travel. King Etana of Mesopotamia who lived around 2300 BC is depicted as flying on the back of an eagle. The founder of the Inca empire, as described in Inca mythology had wings and could fly. In the far East, the Chinese also made attempts at flight. Dating back from 2200BC the Chinese Emperor Shin is said to have made a successful attempt at flight wearing large straw hats as proxy for wings. In their relentless quest, the Chinese made one of the most successful inventions, the kite, that helped to illuminate the science behind flying. It is recorded that the ancient Chinese built kites similar to modern day parachutes that were used in actual flight. Several visitors to China including the Italian explorer Marco Polo reported seeing kites used in transportation. The Chinese also used the science behind kites and that of projectile motion to develop and launch rockets that were used in military expedition.

The importance of being able to fly was such that the Greek philosopher Plato said of flight, "the natural function of the wing is to soar upwards and carry that which is heavy up to the place where dwells the race of gods. More than any other thing that pertains to the body it partakes of the nature of the divine." Another great Greek philosopher Aristotle also had this to say about flight; "Man must rise above the Earth- to the top of the atmosphere and beyond- for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives." Man has certainly risen to the top of the earth and certainly has conquered many frontiers, however, the ability to fly has not entirely increased man's understanding of the world in which he lives. It can be argued though that the ability to fly has provided opportunities for travel and has opened man to new frontiers, most importantly space travel and the potential for exploring the vast universe. It has allowed man the opportunity to stretch his imagination and accomplish feats that were once thought impossible. Flight has also inspired awe for every time I board a plane, the laws of physics still don't quite add up.

So, with the amazing landing on the Hudson today my fascination is once again awakened. I marvel not only at the beauty of flight, but at how safe air travel is. The passengers on U.S. Airways Flight 1549 have a lot to be thankful for. They not only escaped death in a plane crash but also escaped another near Titanic like experience-death due to hypothermia. Hats off to the crew who managed to allay the fears of the passengers who must have been scared to death. Of course I couldn't close out this post without mentioning the pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger for his courage in directing a phenomenal landing. Sullenberger, a safety consultant with 40 years experience in the aviation industry has been with U.S. Airways since 1980. So, the next time time a politician tries to tell you experience does not count remind them of Flight 1549. The passenger and crew however are not the only ones thankful for today's event. President Bush couldn't have been a more thankful man. He gave his farewell address to the nation today and if this was not the mother of all distractions then I don't know what else is.

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