Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1193, (17 - 23 April 2014)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1193, (17 - 23 April 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Once upon a time - An ancient flying machine?

NASA scientists were intrigued by it, German specialists gave it their stamp of approval, and Egyptians wrote articles and held seminars about it. What may well be the world’s first flying machine is a wooden statue dated 2000 B.C.

It looked like a bird, was of a size that matched children toys, but the aerodynamics, experts say, were exceptional.

The story was published in Al-Ahram’s issue of 8 February 1976. Kamal Naguib, editor of the Aviation page at that time, said that three NASA specialists as well as  Egyptian scientist Dr Farouq Al-Baz met at the Egyptian Museum, where they discussed the claim that this was the world’s first model of an airplane.

Credit for that unusual claim came from Khalil Messiha (1924-1998), an Egyptian physician who had a knack for making airplane models.

All ancient civilisations, including the Egyptian, had stories about humans flying like birds, flying with the aid of flying objects (winged horses or carpets), fighting battles aboard flying devices, and meeting heavenly creatures who can fly.

But when scientists uncovered this object near Djoser Pyramid in Saqqara in 1898, it didn’t strike them as a flying machine. They catalogued it as a bird model, assigned it to room 22 in the first floor of the Egyptian museum, where it resided in anonymity for 70 years.

Then, all of a sudden, it was thrown out of its wooden slumber into world fame, and possibly aviation history.

Messiha, who came upon it in 1969, was struck by its unusual design. The shape of the wings matched those of early aviation models, and the tail in particular, rising vertically with a missing part that may have been horizontally, was unmatched in any bird designs of this or any other period of antiquity.
Following extensive assessment of the aerodynamics of this wooden object, Messiha was convinced. In January 1972, he broke the news to the world:

Ancient Egyptians made the first model of a glider aircraft.

The claim enticed articles in Cairo and London, won the approval of astronautics specialists in the US and German aviation authors. Messiha won government awards and films were made about his discovery.

Critics challenged his opinion. Egyptians made models for everything they used, for entertainment, art, and as children toys. Why would something that looked like a bird be treated as a proof of aviation when no other evidence of aviation existed in this culture, except in mythological imagery of the afterlife? They asked.

To dispel their criticism, Messiha made a copy of the model from light wood, added what he claimed to be the missing part to the tail, and made it fly. With a slight push of the hand, the bird-plane model flew steadily for a few metres. This persuaded at least some of his credits that he had a point.

In 1999, the Germans repeated Messiha’s experiment, with a larger model and just a tiny engine to keep it propelled. It flew with brilliant balance for longer distances than anyone expected.

At this point, artists and scientists from around the world had their interest piqued.

On 26 January 1977, the Egyptian Civil Aviation Ministry gave Messiha a certificate of recommendation and turned the bird-shaped flying object on its logo for aviation pioneers in the country.

The bird that may have been a plane remains a mystery to this day. Aviation specialists from around the world still come to Egypt to contemplate the incredible possibility that the ancients didn’t just aspired for flying. Some may have actually succeeded.

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