The 8th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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This object (shown in sketch) was found in 1898 in a tomb at Saqquara, Egypt and was later dated as having been created near 200 BCE. As airplanes were unknown in the days when it was found, it was thrown into a box marked "wooden bird model" and then stored in the basement of the Cairo museum.
It was rediscovered by Dr. Khalil Messiha, who studied models made by ancients. The "discovery" was considered so important by the Egyptian government that a special committee of leading scientists was established to study the object.
As a result of their findings, a special exhibit was set up in the center hall of the Cairo museum, with the little model as its centerpiece. It was even labelled as a model airplane.
To elucidate the reasons for the decision of the committee, almost unprecedented in the field of archeology, let's consider some aspects of the model. The model has the exact proportions of a very advanced form of "pusher-glider" that is still having "some bugs ironed out". This type of glider will stay in the air almost by itself—even a very small engine will keep it going at low speeds, as low as 45 to 65 mph., while it can carry an enormous payload. This ability is dependent on the curious shape of wings and their proportions. The tipping of wings downward, a reversedihedral wing as it is called, is the feature behind this capability. A similar type of curving wings are implemented on the Concorde airplane, giving the plane a maximum lift without detracting from its speed.
In that context, it seems rather incredible that someone, more than 2,000 years ago, for any reason, devised a model of a flying device with such advanced features, requiring quite extensive knowledge of aerodynamics. There were no such things as airplanes in these times, we are told by archeologists and historians. But this case seems to be an exception, living in the midst of the rather unimaginative and rigid paradigm of contemporary science. It is also necessary to point out that Egyptians are known to have nearly always made scale-models of projects and objects which they planned to create or build.
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Precolombian Airplane Models
Is the concept of an airplane limited to Egypt? That doesn't seem to be the case. Gold trinkets were found in an area covering Central America and coastal areas of South America, estimated to belong to a period between 500 and 800 CE, but since they are made from gold, accurate dating is impossible and based essentially on stratigraphy which may be deceptive. However, we can safely say that these gold objects are more than 1000 years old.
Whatever this object is supposed to be or represent,
its remarkable resemblance to a modern aircraft or spacecraft is uncanny.
As seen from the pictures, the shape of the sample object is rather ambiguous. The archaeologists labelled these objects as zoomorphic, meaning, animal shaped objects. The question is, what animal do they represent? When we compare these with other objects from the same cultures depicting animals, a curious facet of the comparison would be obvious: the other objects are recognizable, rendered usually with a great accuracy and attention to realistic detail.
There are several types of animals which fly—birds, insects, and several mammals, such as bats and some gliders, for instance flying squirrels, oppossums, and then there are some lizards; there are also some fish which for brief periods glide through the air. There are water animals which seem to fly through the water, such as rays, skates and some selachians. But how does the depicted object compare with these choices? All its features taken into a consideration, we have no match. Seen from above, the object obviously has no fish features, but seems to show rather explicitly mechanistic ones.
The structures just in front of the tail are strongly reminiscent of elevons (a combination of ailerons and elevators) with a slight forward curve, but they are attached to the fuselage, rather than the wings. In any case, they look more like airplane parts than like the claspers of a fish. If the two prominent spirals on the wings are supposed to be a stylized version of the eyes of a ray, then what are the two globular objects positioned on the head supposed to represent? To complicate the identification even more, the spirals on the wings have their copies positioned on the nose of the object, in the opposite direction. When the object is viewed in profile, the didsimilarity to anything from the animal kingdom is even more pronounced. If the zoomorphic explanation is supposed to hold, then why did the artist cut the head off almost three quarters from the body? And why is the nose is practically rectangular and the cut tilted forward, with eyes positioned at either side, when fish eyes are usually more near the center of bodyline and far forward on the head?
What we can make of the semicircular grooves on the inside of the cut? What is it supposed to be—fishwise? And what about the scoop, forward and under the cut? It is a scoop, not just a ridge for drilling a hole through to place the object on a necklace chain. Then there is another rectangular feature, positioned further back at the approximate center of gravity under the fuselage. The wings when viewed from the side are perfetly horizontal, but when seen from the front, they curve slightly downward. The elevators, which are right behind the wings, are positioned on a slightly higher horizontal level and are square-ended, thus a definite geometric shape. Above them is another rectangular shape, with a relief which may be reminiscent of knobs. The tail is equally intriguing. No fish has only a single, upright and perpendicular flange. But this tail fin has an exact shape of fins on modern airplanes. There are also some markings on the tail which are hard to identify, but it does not seem to be anything related to animals, either.
When all the features are taken into an account, the object does not look like a representation of any known animal at all, but does look astonishingly like an airplane. The photos and enlarged outline of the object has been submitted for an analysis to several people from the field of aerodynamics. One of them was Arthur Young, a designer of Bell helicopters and other aircraft. His analysis confirmed that the object contains many features which would fit the airplane hypothesis, but there were several ones which would not fit that scenario. Wings do seem to be in the wrong place—they should be further forward so that their 1/4-chord coincides with the center of gravity. The nose is not like anything on airplanes, as well. So, while the object is suggesting an airplane, some features would not seem to support this hypothesis.
But let's entertain several possibilities. If we imagine that the separation after the windshield is not a cockpit and that the pilot and the cargo were located somewhere in the main fuselage body, then we can envision the nose as something else. Let's assume that the nose is actually a jet. If the machine needs to slow down, the jet flow directed against the path of flight would accomplish just that. But how to redirect the jet into the opposite direction? If we envision the nose as a movable part of the plane, turning around the point located where the nose and fuselage meet, thus pivoting the nose downward to tuck it under the fuselage, that would enable the desired effect. What's more, it will re-adjust the center of gravity and the wings would be just in the right place for a high powered flight. Another problem, though, will appear and that is the drag which would be created by the back of the nose now positioned in front. But that can be attributed to artistic license. That seems to be the case, because several other similar planes feature the back part of the nose tilted more forward, so the angle of the back of the nose when pivoted is more corresponding to aerodynamic principles.
All things considered, the object seems to represent a convertible type of craft, with two possible configurations—one for ascent when the nose is facing backwards, and the other for descent with the nose facing forward. One unsolved item remains—the spirals on the both wings and the nose. According to Amerindian iconography, these spirals have discernable meaning—they represent ascending and descending, depending on whether they are right-oriented or left-oriented, respectively. As the spirals are not only on wings but also on the nose, the meaning is fairly obvious—the wings and the nose (as much) were the features which were directly involved in ascent and descent.
There are other cultures which mention flying vehicles of some sort or another. The most known of these sources are Indian epics, especially the Mahábhárata and other Védic sources as Bhágavata Purána and Rámáyana. The flying devices were called vimánas and were extensively discussed in Vaimánika Shástra, describing multitude of machines with different purposes and capabilities.
Other source of information about flying machines may be considered, such as the Bible and some apocryphal works. The book of Ezekiel seems to be describing the close encounter of a man from a non-technological culture with a device which to him must have been miraculous. We have to put ourselves into his shoes to comprehend his astonishment and the otherworldness of his encounter. The limited scope of knowledge of the world around him, his primitive environment, dictated the language and conceptual framework with which he tried to capture his encounter for fellow tribesmen. For him it seemed that he encountered The God, with his suite of angels, because in his simple world, there was no other interpretation. It is not necessary to reach for an alien type of scenario to explain the encounter; we can entertain a possibility that a remnant of an advanced civilization was still present, in a limited scope, at the time of Ezekiel. But for some, the encounter bears uncanny similarity to the modern-day encounters with UFO's. Another source of similar material is the Book of Enoch, particularly the Slavic version, which contains some parts which the Greek version is missing. The book not only describes flying in the air, but also through outer space, including the relativistic effects mentioned—Enoch spent several days on a spacecraft, but when he returned to Earth, several centuries had passed by.
There is no shortage of descriptions of flying machines in ancient sources. If we try to extract the core of myths of different provenience and remove the embellishments, we discover to our surprise that flying in ancient times seems to be the rule, not the exception.
Text and Illustrations ©1996 Lumir G. Janku
Photographs courtesy of Government of Colombia,
Roy Pinney and Barney Nashold