Bird flight – Not Even Close Yet

In reading Otto Lilienthal’s book I become aware of how little progress humans have made in the effort to fly like birds. Oh yes we streak across oceans in jet planes and ride in gliders on the rising air currents but we still don’t fly like the birds do. I’m not entirely referring here to the lack of progress in human carrying ornithopters, although that is one aspect of the desire to fly like the birds. Hang gliding has brought us closer to bird like flight but again it isn’t there yet.

The closest to flight like a bird I ever felt in my years of hang gliding was when I was circling in a thermal with a raven circling below me. I would do a raven call and the raven would look up at me a call back. We went around and around like this for a while, talking raven language, with the raven unable (or didn’t want) to close the vertical gap between us. However, this was more of a spiritual bond with a soaring bird, which gave me the sensation that I had entered his world. An illusion to be sure, but one I’ll never forget.

Now, to the other realm of bird flight other than successful beating wings flying a human through the air. Those of you reading this, who were around in the early day of the modern sport of hang gliding will remember the ideas and inspiration given to us by Richard miller. In my hang gliding years I would periodically decide to forgo flying for the day and drive down to Vista the spend the afternoon with Richard. Time spent, sometimes flying from a local hill with Richard, but other times not flying, that I will always treasure.

Richard had a dream of one day humans being able to feel, in their bodies, what was happening out on those wings they were flying with. Damn! The birds can do this and we can’t! To feel in our bodies every force being exerted on the wings and react to it. In a lesser way we do this with weight shift hang gliders by feeling the forces of an induced roll or pitch change and reacting to it with a weight shift control input to the glider. Yes, it is similar to a bird feeling those forces, but very rudimentary at best. Richard wanted more.

He used to talk to me about this because he hoped I would develop a way to couple my variometer to my body so that rising and descending would have a physical feel in the body. I enjoyed thinking about this but never gave it much time. He would have liked many sensors on the wing with inputs to our physical beings to bring us the true feeling of flight like the birds. The rabid development of digital electronics may bring us to that day that Richard so much wished for but there needs to be the desire to accomplish this feat. Imagine, if Boeing or Lockheed applied their engineers to this.

Rest in eternal flight, Richard.
Frank Colver

Richard watching as son Matt & I set up my Skysail on the Vineyard St Hill, San Marcos, CA