by Steve Bill Hanshew
The Order of Daedalians is a prestigious aviation fraternity going all the way back to the first combat aviators of World War I. Founded by no less a legend then General Billy Mitchell, it is renowned for flying scholarships and awards to notable pilots and in the true spirit of flight, continues the great traditions of that Greek aviation luminary, Daedalus.
You know, Daedalus, the guy that flew ahead of everyone to include the Wrights’, Langley, Bleriot, Curtiss, and even that Whitehead guy from Connecticut. Never heard of Daedalus huh? No surprise, unless you’re into Greek mythology. Without a Roman poet by the name of Ovid, no one would know about the world’s first flight and after nearly 2,000 years I guess it’s time to set the record straight and expose the real story concerning the guy that allegedly made manned flight a reality and the guy lionized for centuries as a great pilot.
To begin with Daedalus was the first homebuilder and not the first pilot. His son Icarus was the first pilot. Daedalus is Greek for “clever builder” as most homebuilders are. We don’t know what the name Icarus means in Greek other than he’s the son of Daedalus, although I think brave, bold, or plain stupid works. Prior to the aviation business Daedalus was a civil engineer and along with his son Icarus built a convoluted maze of corridors and tunnels called the labyrinth designed to lead the poor soul stuck in one right into the hoofed presence of a Minotaur, who just so happens to be part man, part bull and demands human sacrifices as lunch. Today he is known as a politician.
The King of Crete was a dude named Minos and the guy who commissioned Daedalus and Icarus to build this maze in order to contain the Minotaur. Spoiler alert: the Minotaur is Minos’ son and you don’t really want to know how that happened but let’s just say Daedalus had a hand in it. The ancient Greeks put the kink in kinky. The king has a beautiful daughter – don’t they all. Minos condemns this poor guy named Theseus to be cast into the maze to be eaten by the Minotaur simply because Theseus loves his daughter. Knowing protective fathers as I do, this is the only part of the myth I believe. At this point Daedalus tells Icarus to forget about asking the King’s daughter out for dinner and a play. However, Daedalus feels sorry for poor Theseus and being a compassionate kind of guy, gives him a big ball of string.
Theseus lays the string as a path back out of the maze and while at it, kills the Minotaur, gets the girl, and then beats feet out of Crete. Such is the life of a Greek hero. Needless to say, Minos is less than ecstatic with Daedalus and Icarus and promptly throws them both into the labyrinth while posting an army of guards around it just to make sure that even with a ball of string, they’re trapped. Even if they could get out, Crete is an island and the good King has the entire coastline under wraps. Where to go; what to do; and like the cast of ‘Lost’ how the heck do I get off this island? In a nutshell, Minos owns everything from the mountains to waves but unlike the latter FAA, doesn’t own the sky. They say necessity is the mother of invention and so it was with Daedalus. If you can’t walk or swim out the only other way is up. Whereas Wilbur and Orville just wanted off Kill Devil Hills, Daedalus and Icarus wanted off Crete.
Remember, this was long before ‘Popular Mechanics’ and ‘EAA Experimenter’ so in essence, Daedalus ‘the ever resourceful’ was going to have to write the book on homebuilding, drawing out his own set of plans to be later sold to other Greeks in ‘Sport Avatar’. Any good homebuilder is a cheapskate and tries to get by on the minimum materials and so it was with Daedalus. Without benefit of Aircraft Spruce or Wicks and the added Godsend of a brown UPS van, he had to scrounge around the labyrinth for pieces and parts in which to build a set of wings. Naturally, Icarus enquired as to why Dad was having him chase down geese, buzzards, and hawks and then after a thorough beaking, pluck them clean. Other than a nice hot pot pie, what good was this? But Dad was too busy collecting up twine and errant candles to explain his plan even though Icarus was the fall guy for it – no pun intended. A good epoxy glue would have helped but all Daedalus had was a load of candle wax so in true homebuilt fashion he used what he had on hand and glued all of the assorted feathers to a wooden wing frame.
He then has Icarus try them on for size. For Icarus this is the first clue that Dad has flipped his wig, wing, what have you. When he tells Icarus that he plans on having him fly off the island for help, he knows without question Dad has flown the coop and gone off the reservation. But, being a good son, Icarus humors dad leaping around while flapping his ersatz wings like a starling dusting in gravel for lice. Without the slightest clue, Icarus finds himself a few feet off the ground. Yowzer, he’s flying. A couple of high speed taxi runs proves the concept and cements in Icarus’ mind that dad may not be as deranged as he appears.
The pre-flight briefing is short and sweet: Flap wings profusely, run like a madman, takeoff, assume a low altitude cruise profile, don’t fly low enough to hit the sea, and most importantly don’t fly high enough where the heat of the sun will compromise dad’s half-baked glue job. Icarus nods and like any good test pilot puts fear and reason aside and leaves the safety of earth for the freedom of the sky. The takeoff is textbook and Icarus is off and flying. And just like a hawk he instinctually finds the sweet spot where flapping lends to gliding and in turn results in the maximum coefficient of lift. Hey, this flying thing is pretty cool. Icarus even does a couple of lazy eights over the labyrinth and executes the very first buzz job-forcing dad to the ground.
After that, Icarus banks west towards Sicily and freedom but dad senses trouble afoot, awing, what have you. “Crete we have a problem”. Even after a thorough pre-flight briefing the kid is doing what kids do, and that is forgetting everything dad told them. He is climbing for altitude over the blue Mediterranean, higher ever higher, soaring towards that glowing orb in the sky. With no radio and no light gun to communicate with, Daedalus screams for him to lower the nose…that is his literal nose attached to his face. Heck, what does dad know Icarus thinks; I’m climbing like homesick Mercury. Just after top of climb and level off Icarus discovers why Dads’ are always right – most of the time. Just like dad warned, the wax is melting, feathers are flying, and Icarus is in the midst of the first in-flight breakup. What follows next is the classic stall-spin straight into the sea. According to Ovid, Icarus cried out “Father, Father” as he plummeted into the ocean. Somehow I think it was more like the singular word terminating every accident cockpit voice recorder I ever heard.
Never one to let failure stand in the way, after a suitable crying spell, Daedalus builds another set of wings and this time follows the test card to the letter, flying off the island and back to Sicily where he lands to excited throngs much like Lindbergh in Paris. So, the story ends or so it seems. Now, the untold story: Daedalus is not only the second pilot known to man; he is a conscientious pilot who follows the spirit of the law. After alighting, landing, touchdown, what have you, he walks straight over to the Sicilian safety board and files the very first accident report becoming the template for all future aviation accident investigators. He writes: Aircraft: Daedalus 1, one fatality. Pilot: New pilot with no high altitude sign-off. Circumstances: Continued flight into deteriorating conditions exceeding structural integrity – Cause? What else: PILOT ERROR.
To quote Paul Harvey – God rest his soul – “and now you know the rest of the story.”