The Art of Flight

I can’t help marveling at the magnificent grace of the Red Tail hawk as it hovers upon the slightest breeze, like a kite, so effortless as it looks down upon the Earth with its telescopic vision, ever at ease, never hurried. And when it journeys it glides, often in pairs, lazily, oftentimes just circling in a romantic dance as if just for the enjoyment of it, probably saying “Om” with its eyes closed, sailing about the sky with nary a flap of its wings, causing awed humans half a mile below to think, “What the hell is that? Is that a little airplane? What is that?”

On the other hand we have a particular species of bird here in Wisconsin, which I initially referred to as the Yellow Vested Plummet, which travels from one spot to another with the same horizontal grace and stability as a badger on a pogo stick. It beats its little wings as hard as it can, propelling itself forward a bit, and then–for reasons known only to its pea brain–stops. And drops. As I watch it flit from tree to tree, up-down, up-down, on its tree hopping journeys that take about forty minutes each given that there’s way more up-down than actual forward, I’m unable to determine if this bird is a million years behind schedule in terms of bird evolution, or given the present state of affairs with global warming, has already reached its apex and has made a conscious effort, via one generation to the next, to evolve into a coconut.

Now, you might point out that some birds, like a penguin, don’t fly at all, let alone poorly, and you’d be right to note this except I never really considered a penguin a bird as much as I considered it an early attempt on God’s part to make a soft shelled torpedo. And of course chickens and turkeys don’t fly, but pretty much for the same reason a bowling ball doesn’t either. What confuses me, in regard to the Yellow Vested Plummet, is this animal’s natural ability to take wing followed immediately by its inability to grasp step two, which would be moving forward in any sort of reasonably efficient or productive manner. I always assumed step one was the hard part and step two was just a cakewalk. I’m sure lizards everywhere share my perspective.

I tried to find out its real name by Googling “inefficiently flying bird” but all I got was a link to the U.S. Military’s V-22 Osprey. This is an airplane that can take off straight up and then moves forward by rotating these two giant fans on each of its wings it order to propel it forward while it’s hovering in the air at an operating cost of $9,000 an hour, which leads me to assume all of the V-22’s sorties are catered.

I remember this project from years ago and was under the impression we had eventually decided to give up and donate the few we had made to Goodwill. Apparently not. We made more. As you may or may not recall, the military needed development of the Osprey in order to have a flying vehicle that could transport lots of people and take off and land by going straight up or down, and therefore need little to no runway, and they got final approval from then president Ronald Reagan–I initially assumed–by not telling him about helicopters. Unfortunately the initial 2 billion dollar prototype succeeded in doing the “lift up and move forward” thing with the same frequency of success as a young Wilbur Wright did doing leaping pirouettes off his mother’s picnic table. But that was at the start of the project in 1984. In 1986 the military decided the problem was that the original budget was low by, oh, 28 billion dollars. So by making this slight correction and increasing the budget for the project by 15 times the original estimate, which Congress approved, they were ready to start working out the kinks. Somewhat off the subject, I think if I said I’d paint your living room for $500 and you agreed and then I got finished and said, “Can I have $8,000 instead?” you wouldn’t say, “Sure.” Unless you were a congressman.

But getting back to the Osprey, which incidentally is a kind of hawk. However, it’s a fish eating hawk which means the thing this animal is really good at is plunging into water. If you’re an airplane this is the one attribute you don’t want to emulate, which makes me question the wisdom behind giving it that name. Although in the early going it did seem to live up to it.

It turns out I was wrong on the military plot to keep Reagan in the dark about the invention of the helicopter. As I later learned, the purpose of the Osprey was to replace helicopters, mainly the CH-46 Sea Knight troop transporter, which in turn had replaced the earlier version of itself, the iconic H-21 Nameless. The H-21 is no doubt familiar to many people as it’s the thing that looks like the by-product of a one-night stand between one of the giant mutant grasshoppers from the movie Beginning of the End and the Oscar Mayer Wiener Mobile, consequently earning it the nickname of the “Flying Banana.” This helicopter was instrumental during both the Korean and Vietnam war for it’s amazing ability to neutralize the enemy given that the sight of it induced uncontrollable fits of laughter that prevented them from pointing their rifles at anything and firing with any reasonable degree of accuracy.

Also, you will often see the H-21 in many a 50’s monster movie as it was the Army’s go-to helicopter for attacking giant mutant things such The Giant Behemoth, The Giant Gila Monster, The Monstrous Monstrosity of Monster Island, and my favorite Swedish monster movie of all time because it used a marionette for the monster, Redundicus. But my favorite from this period, as mentioned in passing above, is in fact Beginning of the End (starring Peter Graves, who coincidentally would go on to star in the movie Airplane!). I think my favorite part of Beginning of the End is when the hordes of “giant” grasshoppers are climbing up a building in Chicago, trying to get to him and his girlfriend, Peggy Castle. This is obviously a photograph of a building that somebody’s holding at a 45-degree angle so that the normal sized real grasshoppers can walk on it. I’m pretty sure I can see the guy’s thumb. Peter Graves is shooting at the grasshoppers from an upper floor. Every time he hits one, the guy with the thumb tilts the photograph at a little higher angle until one of the grasshoppers slides down the side of the building. Not falls from it, but slides down it. I just hope Ray Harryhausen didn’t have to see this.

But getting back to the Sea Knights, the problem was they were getting worn out. Buying new ones was not an option as the manufacturer, the Boeing Vertol Corporation, had in recent years switched from building helicopters under federal government contract to the more lucrative field of building tow trucks for the Lincoln Park Towing Company for deployment in Cook County, Illinois.

So our government spent billions of dollars on this Osprey project because we had to invent a way for a big airplane to lift straight up vertically and then move forward from a hovering position because it would be so much cooler than the old helicopter method. This up and go thing had been done on a smaller scale thirty years earlier by England, and I do give them credit for knowing their limitations and not trying to do it with something the size of the Chrysler Building, unlike us in America who know no bounds or limitations, which explains why during World War II we paid Howard Hughes and the Hughes Aircraft Corporation for the development of his H-4 Flying Lard Ass which he personally flew the same distance he would have traveled had he been fired out of a circus canon. Once. Two years after the war ended. Good thing we won.

Anyway, the English: what they built was the Harrier jump jet. This was hugely successful (just ask Argentina) given that it could take off from anywhere and go really fast because it was a jet! which is the one thing a helicopter can’t do–nor a cargo plane whose sole means of propulsion is a pair of ceiling fans. I also need to point out that a harrier is a hawk. Not a hawk that eats fish of course, like an osprey, but a real rugged meat and potatoes type hawk. Also harrier means one that harries. So you can imagine England’s enemies (Argentina) would be very concerned knowing that England had this truly annoying weapon at their disposal, and given the Harrier jump jet’s quick scramble and lift off from anywhere capability they could be terribly harried at any moment. That alone would be psychologically crippling. This is not the first time, however, that England went this route of doing the most psychological damage to the enemy as possible in choosing a name for one of their war planes. I’m referring of course to the de Havilland Mosquito! Yes. Later followed by the Chigger and the Gout. And I think during World War II they had a 30-caliber machine gun called the Wedgie.

I have to interrupt a moment and point out that in my looking up the word mosquito for the purpose of spelling it properly I noticed there is something called a mosquito hawk. However, this is actually a dragonfly. I have no idea why someone would give it this name but I would like to point out to them, unless they’re dead, that a dragonfly has nothing in common with a mosquito or a hawk. And it’s not something in the middle either. I can understand calling it Crispin’s Dragonfly assuming your name was Crispin, or a hawk dragonfly if it’s sort of a prick (well, they kind of are), or a mosquito dragonfly if it’s the size of an airplane, but if you’re going to pick two things that don’t in any way relate to the insect you’re actually naming, why not be bold and just call your newly discovered bug the Empire Builder Chicago to Los Angeles 915.

But getting back to the Osprey project, this huge expense, which essentially is dedicated to transporting our troops to inaccessible areas of the globe, could easily be eradicated by one simple plan: stop transporting our troops to inaccessible areas of the globe. Just line them up around the perimeter of the United States and I’m sure we’ll all be fine. Of course we have to get them to the perimeter but this would be easily done by the use of trains, and the good thing about trains is we don’t have to figure out how to make them fly, although I’m sure the military will petition Congress to make a fiscal allowance to look into it.

But even in getting rid of this huge military money waster, there still leaves another transportation related free health care voider remaining and this costs as much money as trying to figure out cool ways of flying Americans to outer Benghazi. And that would be our ongoing plan of flying Americans to outer space. Humans don’t belong in outer space. Just ask any astronaut who has spent three months on the International Space Station. They’ll be the first to tell you how their bone density atrophied to styrofoam and the wonderful time they had upon their return of throwing up in front of their family for three weeks trying to get accustomed to living with gravity as well as living with their newly formed red blood cells which were now the exact size and pointy shape of those little hotels you get in a Monopoly game only more radioactive–but which is probably still way better than being on the space station itself, where encouraged by zero gravity all of your bodily fluids move from where they normally hang out, like in your feet, and all take up residence in your nose, and you communicate with your non-English speaking comrades by farting at them since you’ve now got the same gas to skeleton ratio as the Hindenburg.

Now, I have no problem with the space program per se. I’m all in favor of sending “things” into outer space like satellites so that we can get the Home Shopping Network, I just think we need to draw the line at sending people.

I know NASA doesn’t agree with me here and this is evidenced by a letter that Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, one-time associate director of science at NASA’s Marshall Space Center, wrote to Sister Mary Jucunda of Zambia way back in 1970 when she wrote and asked him why we were spending so much money trying to send people to Mars when so many children were starving on Earth. Dr. Stuhlinger notes that he believes exploration of outer space will “contribute more to the solution of these grave problems we are facing here on Earth than many other potential projects of help which are debated and discussed year after year, and which are so extremely slow in yielding tangible results.”

He has a good point and you need only do the math on this one to see it clearly: Seventy years of exploring space + eight trillion dollars = Tang instant breakfast drink. In comparison, how many breakfast drinks has UNICEF come up with, huh?

Dr. Stuhlinger then continues with a detour on the very important invention of the microscope, which he suggests would not have been possible without a similarly sized billion dollar grant from Richard III to Timkin the Glass Blower; followed by an in depth explanation of how one submits a budget line item to Congress which I’m sure for Sister Mary Jucunda must have read like Fifty Shades of Grey; followed by an explanation of how by putting satellites into orbit we’re able to see where all the poor people are throughout the globe, zoom in real close to each of their houses in order to get the address number, and thus be able to mail them boxes of Quaker Oats along with packages of dried water. He goes on to mention all the wonderful everyday items we use which were first developed by the space program. Clearly he’s referring here, for example, to the pen that writes in a zero gravity environment. I use mine all the time except that I call it a pencil. This pen thing actually cost a million dollars to develop and I assume it was so “cheap” because somebody at Hewlett Packard figured it out while they were taking a leak. Thank God it didn’t take an entire afternoon or we would have had to cancel Medicare.

But after running through a further litany of things the space program has improved on, including “kitchen appliances, farm equipment, utensils” (sporks?), Dr. Stuhlinger gets to the heart of the matter:

“Presumably, you will ask now why we must develop first a life support system for our moon-traveling astronauts, before we can build a remote-reading sensor system for heart patients.”

Yep. I don’t know exactly what a remote-reading sensor system for heart patients is but I’m still going with ‘yep.’ Is it that beeeeeeeeeeep thing? No, we had that already. Never mind.

“The answer is simple: significant progress in the solutions of technical problems is frequently made not by a direct approach, but first setting a goal of high challenge which offers a strong motivation for innovative work, which fires the imagination and spurs men to expend their best efforts, and which acts as a catalyst by including chains of other reactions.”

I’m not really sure I understood all that, especially the part about “chains of other reactions,” as well as the beginning where he says, “The answer is simple,” but I’m thinking the gist here is “don’t just settle for building a better can opener by virtue of it having a more ergonomic grip; find out if it can survive being thrown into a volcano too.” Then submit your line item budget.

If only we could be a little more conservative in our dispensing of tax payer money, sharing the wealth in a more socialistic manner with people who have so little to work with, such as Sister Mary Jucunda and Bert Gordon, who directed Beginning of the End, then perhaps we would have a better world where individuals who are trying to accomplish things on Earth for the good of humanity would find success. Well, that’s just my two cents. Which coincidentally was the budget for Beginning of the End.

Getting back to Dr. Stuhlinger, he includes a picture of Earth taken by Apollo 8 as a souvenir for the Sister, saying,

“The photograph I enclose with this letter shows a view of our Earth as seen from Apollo 8 when it orbited the moon at Christmas, 1968. Of all the many wonderful results of the space program thus far–“

(deep breath)

“this picture may be the most important one.”


“It opened our eyes to the fact that our Earth is a beautiful and most precious island in an unlimited void, and that there is no other place for us to live but the thin surface layer of our planet, bordered by the bleak nothingness of space.”

Right, so stop trying to go there.

OK, well, I will say that it was very thoughtful of Dr. Stuhlinger to at least take the time to write a reply to the original letter. And I’m sure that as she finished reading it, one of our ultra-sophisticated satellites could have right at that moment, with pin point accuracy, zoomed in and sent a video transmission to the Houston Space Center of Sister Mary Jucunda banging her head against a post.

In conclusion, it has been pointed out to me that the V-22 Osprey can cruise at a speed 150 miles an hour faster than any helicopter. And I realize this is very important as it allows the Osprey to actually outrun any American military helicopter that might be trying to defend it given that it can’t very well defend itself from a potential enemy (like Argentina). To resolve this problem the military is currently developing a fighter jet that will go 300 miles an hour slower than fighter jets do now so as to keep apace of the Osprey on missions where an escort fighter jet is needed. They’re going to call it the Yellow Vested Plummet.

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