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Monday, July 16, 2007

on the miracle of flight

The miracle of flight never ceases to amaze me. Its not that the physics of the thing are beyond my grasp; I have read enough about why and how it happens to understand the basics of what goes on when air rushes above and below an aircraft wing at different speeds. I have read a little about aerodynamics and lift, but I tell you that it still baffles me sometimes to the point where I can only conclude that its simply a miracle. I know that the engine turns, the ‘plane moves forward, and when it races faster than I could possibly run, magic happens and the whole show leaves the ground, to conduct the next stage of the act high up in the sky.

You can’t tell me that its not a major miracle when you see all one billion tons of Boeing 747 taking to flight as easily as any of the birds which have the benefit of flight, some of them no bigger than my fist. Contemplate for a second the entire process of launching a huge flying machine, several tons of its own weight bolstered by the mass of a few hundred souls and their baggage, and enough fuel to make the entire process possible. Launching, not just to hop into the air for a few feet, but for actual sustained flight. Amazing? Yet it does not stop there, because these huge beasts somehow manage not only to stay aloft for hours on end, travelling faster than you or I could possibly comprehend in groundspeed terms, but they actually propel themselves miles above the ground. And then, more often than not (thank the good God) the process of complex magical voodoo is reversed and brought to completion when aircraft, passengers, fuel and cargo come back to firm earth. If that is not magic, I don’t know what is.

I am living a miracle at the moment. As I write, I am on a plane, headed home to Nigeria. Not only am I flying, but I am doing so rather comfortably, which is probably not right. I’m in a bed, admittedly not a huge one, but it’s a comfortable bed nonetheless, flat, with room to stretch out; being served food and drink. All of this while watching a movie, miles and miles above the ground where my home and all I know are firmly rooted. Down the aisle, a handful of guys are at a bar, drinking and chatting like they would in most bars in any city around the world, which is a tad odd. I’m not sure I know anywhere else where perfect strangers would be talking and drinking within such proximity to my bed! In fact, where it not for that bar and the occasional turbulence that we rocks us from time to time, shaking up the juice in my glass in the process, it might well have been possible to pretend to be anywhere else on earth rather than up in the air, supported by physics, the rushing wind and the voodoo magic of flight.

Yet, all of this takes place within a miracle that’s guaranteed to deliver me to hot and sweaty Lagos before the sun comes up fully across this part of the Atlantic Ocean. If I had any sense, I would be afraid of this mechanical beast that can somehow make such magic possible. Yet it all feels so natural. In truth we have come very far since that day on Kitty Hawk Beach when the Wright brothers (who actually sold bicycles for a living if memory of random trivia serves me right) took to flight for the first time, in what was no more than a few seconds of barely controlled hopping which barely lifted man and machine off the ground.

Can you imagine the ridicule and scorn they would have had to endure from those who knew of their plans? Imagine Noah, who built his Ark in preparation for a flood that did not come for 150 years. What would we have made of him today? Then picture two brothers daring to think that they could make their winged contraption fly! I would have laughed too, wouldn’t you? You can rightly accuse me of understatement when I say that I imagine they would have been thrilled to their souls when they realised what one of them would have first known, he whose task it would have been to convince his brother that man could fly, even though he had neither wings nor feathers to lift himself off the ground with.

We’ve come a long long way since then, mankind. The history and story of flight is one of heroic achievement that’s seen the development of the jet engine, long-haul commercial flight (who was it that famously claimed that it would not be possible/economical to have commercial aircraft flying people around the world), supersonic commercial airliners and planes that can fly faster than the speed of sound? Did I forget to mention warplanes that can do amazing aerobatics, the Antonov 225 aircraft that can seemingly swallow whole cities, and of course the space shuttle that has somehow managed to launch specially selected individuals far beyond what our unaided eyes can see.

I tell you, flying is magic, whether you accept it or not. Its just magic that we take for granted, so we forget to marvel at it. Just picture how it all comes together, engine, rudder, wings, flaps, propulsion, control surfaces, ailerons, fuselage, undercarriage – isn’t it amazing how all these pieces come together so seamlessly? Statistically, flying is one of the safest means of transport there is, and that itself is another reason to wonder. As far as I’m concerned, each airplane is as magical as a flying carpet, only infinitely more comfortable, and blessed with pilots who can take control. I didn’t see Ali Baba controlling a rudder, or controlling flaps and that’s scary.

If you are reading this, then I have come down to earth, in an aeroplane flown by a skilled, well-trained pilot. I have just experienced the miracle of flight yet again, and I was completely blown away by it. Flying is magic, and I am spellbound. If you're reading this, then its because i arrived safely at home, and I thank God.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey, you can't be more correct. Each time I travel by air, I am equally sobered by the thought that fellow human beings (or aren't they) like me invented aeroplanes. The last time I went to Lagos from my base here in Johannesburg, I flew SAA's long stretch airbus ( prior to that, the double decker 747) and my seat was at the very back. Walking the aisle to my seat was like walking through the corridors of a very long hallway in a four storey house. The most thrilling moment is always the moment the massive structure lifts up from the ground. Each time I experience that on any trip, I always offer silent prayers to the Creator, (that even though we've overdone it (flying) as humans, He should please bring me (together with my fellow passengers of mixed persons) back safely to the ground - and that in itself is another experience on its own!