Learning to Fly

A light rain fell on the small crowd.  The pale gray clouds moved slowly across the dark morning sky.  The dim light illuminated the coffin being lowered into a hole in the ground.  As the crowd left, many hands comforted the recent widower.  As Jay drove home, he kept thinking, “I can’t believe she’s gone.” The empty seat next to him hurt.  If one seat felt this bad, he didn’t want to feel what was back at home.

As he walked in the door, almost everything reminded him of her.  He walked across the room and sat in her favorite chair.  Suddenly, he felt very tired.  When he woke up, it was late in the afternoon, and he was hungry.  He got up and walked to the kitchen, almost expecting her to be there cooking dinner.  When he got there, he didn’t feel like cooking.  He grabbed a snack and went to bed.

That night, his dreams were horrible.  The worst part was that there was nothing there.  Emptiness.  It went on forever, and he was the only one there.  In the morning, the space next to him didn’t make him feel any better.  It seemed she was everywhere, yet still nowhere.  He felt so sad, so lonely.  He wanted to join her.  But he had to be here, and he had to go to work.

He grabbed breakfast on the way to work.  At least at work there was nothing to remind him of her at work.  His co-workers were smart enough to not mention anything.  They understood why Jay was so gloomy.  They tried to make him feel better, but with no avail.  So the workday dragged on, until closing time when everyone had to leave.

As Jay drove home, he passed a small park.  He had never seen the place for some reason.  He thought this would be a nice place to spend time, mostly because no one there knew him, and everything was unfamiliar.  So he found a bench and sat down.  Though he still felt the sadness inside, he thought the park was beautiful.  “She would’ve loved it here,” he thought, with a twinge of sadness.  So he sat there for the afternoon, and left as the sky darkened.

And so the weeks passed, sad at home, gloomy at work, and lightly less lonely at the park.  He liked to watch the people and pets walking in the park and enjoying themselves, as he tried to share their happiness.

One day, while at the park, a man sat next to Jay. “How you doing, sir?” he asked.  “Fine, I guess,” Jay replied.  The man looked disgusted.  “‘I guess?’ How can you not be great, with all these people, these trees, all the wonderful birds?”

Jay had never paid much attention to the birds.  There were birds everywhere, with all sizes, colors, and species.  His wife had loved birds.  As he remembered her, he expected the sadness to follow. But the memory of her was a good one, not like the pain at home.

“The birds are nice,” Jay replied with a sigh.

The man smiled at him.  “If that’s so, than you may enjoy a bird watching group I know of.  By the way, my name is Alex.”

“My name is Jay,” Jay replied, “I’ll think about that.”

“If you decide, the group meets on the other side of the park at 5:30 every day”

As Jay drove home, he thought that bird watching might be a good idea.  It would shine a small light on his otherwise dull life alone.  There would be others there that he could talk with, and possibly get his mind off things.

The next day, he waited almost anxiously for work to be over so he could get to the park.  When he got there, he looked for the group to ask if he could join.  When he found them, he was surprised to find that Alex was leading the group.

“You didn’t tell me it was your bird watching group,” Jay said.

“Sorry,” Alex replied, “I neglected to mention that yesterday.” He then turned to the group and announced, “Everyone, this is Jay.  He will be joining us today and hopefully again in the future.”

For the next hour, everyone walked around quietly watching birds, pointing out the different species and colors.  Some people even had brought binoculars to see the birds up close.  Everyone had a great time.

Over the next few weeks, Jay joined the group.  He learned about so many different birds, and even bought a few books.  He realized his interest in birds, and how much he loved them.  He became friends with some of the others in the group, especially Alex.  Eventually, he felt significantly less alone, and most of the sadness left.

One day, he spotted a small nest up in the trees.  There was a mother bird sitting on top, so there were probably eggs inside.  Jay watched the nest for almost a week.  One day, the eggs started hatching.  He borrowed someone’s binoculars to watch.  It was a beautiful sight to watch the eggs crack open, and the little heads pop out, crying for their mother.  The mother put her beak over each new baby, and regurgitated some leftover food for the hungry chicks.  He continued to watch for a while.  The chicks grew steadily bigger and stronger.  Jay watched them until they started to learn to fly.  As he watched them flap their wings, and jump off that branch, he thought, “If they can go from eggs to flight in a few weeks, why, after all this time, can’t we fly with makeshift wings?”

As he watched, the smallest bird launched itself from the nest, frantically flapping its feathers to take flight.  When it fell, it didn’t catch any air, and hit the ground hard.  It didn’t move afterward.  He watched forlornly as the mother flew down to check the baby, nudged it, and left to attend to the living chicks.  Jay knew how the mother felt.  He suddenly felt sad for the baby bird, the mother, and himself.  He left early that day.

He continued to watch the birds grow bigger for a few days.  He then moved his attention to other birds after he tired of the chicks. As he watched the many different birds, he decided to follow through with his wish to learn to fly, and came up with an idea for a personalized flying machine.  He thought it would be an amazing experience to actually fly, and the project would take his mind off things.

He began by studying how birds flew, and the shape of their wings.  He studied the aerodynamics of birds and feathers.  He came up with a design with thin plastic feathers with a thicker spine down the center.  He imagined many feathers of varying lengths along the wing, which would be made from a hollow aluminum tube.  He noticed how the wings folded as they flew, and added a series of strings and handles to fold the wings in when they flap.  He envisioned powerful leaf blowers on one rotating hinge, so they move together, pushing down or forward, with a wind powered battery attached above and a meter showing the amount of power left where he could see it.  The whole thing would be strapped tightly to his torso, with an aerodynamic cover.  He wasn’t sure it would fly well, but it had a good possibility of working.

Jay shared his idea with Alex the next day.  “It seems farfetched,” Alex said.

“I know, but I want to try it.”

“It could be dangerous.”

“I’ll test it off my roof or something, to be safe.”

“If you want to…”

“I do want to, and I will.”

Over the next few days, Jay collected the materials and prepared to build.  He also did research to help guide him.  He became familiar with the Greek Myth of Daedalus and his son Icarus, and how they tried to escape from the island of Crete.  He called himself the modern Daedalus, and hoped he wouldn’t end up like Icarus.  Within a week, the project was finished.  The blowers had to be on separate axles, with a single connector.  The feathers were not as densely packed as he would like, and the whole thing was a little heavy.  It did not look like he imagined, but it met all of the criteria he set.

He strapped on the new flier and climbed onto his roof.  He fired up the blowers, spread his wings, and jumped.  The blowers were at full power, and were pushing hard.  He wobbled in the air, and righted himself with a flap of a wing.  Pulling the handle and pushing air down took a lot of strength.  He lowered the blower strength and pointed them back.  He started gliding forward, and gave out a shout of joy.  He flew for a short time before he started gliding downwards.  Jay quickly realized he never thought about landing.  He couldn’t roll, so he had to land on his feet.  He pointed the blowers down and carefully flapped to cushion the landing.  At the last second, he folded in the wings and killed the blowers.  As he landed and stumbled forward, a loud crack sounded from his left leg, followed by a scream of pain.  Luckily, someone nearby heard him and drove him to the hospital.

While his broken leg healed, Jay did upper body exercises to build flapping strength, and studied more about flying.  After his leg fully healed, he practiced landing by jumping off tables.  Eventually, he decided to go back to the flyer, but added a parachute.  The landings were still rough, but there were no more injuries.  For the next month, he practiced and became familiar with the controls and the physics of flying.  His day had to accommodate for the time, and he ended up not staying with the bird watching group as long as he had with his broken leg.

As Jay got better at flying, he longed for more flying time with wider spaces.  One day, he drove around looking for a good place to fly.  He eventually found a park, with a good, high cliff and open air space.  The next day, he skipped the bird watching group entirely, and took the flyer to the cliff.  He fired up the blowers and lifted a few feet off the ground.  He then flapped his wings back, pushing himself forward.  He quickly spread his wings and tilted the blowers, falling forward and into a glide.  Jay stabilized himself and glided for a few minutes.  He looked out across the beautiful park, feeling the wind in his face.  A sea of green lay below him, a sea of blue above, and a sea of joy within him.  He could see the outlines of mountains in the distance, the grey giants sitting on the horizon with their heads in the clouds.  Birds flew beside him, darting around as they watched the curious sight.

He must have flown for almost an hour before he decided to land.  He looked for a clearing in the woods.  He quickly spotted a large grassy hole in the trees.  He turned toward the clearing and turned down the blowers a bit.  He immediately felt the extra strain on the wings.  He shifted his weight and angled down.  Jay picked up speed as he shot toward the clearing.  About 60 feet off the ground, he opened his wings wide, pulling him out of the dive.  He immediately deployed his parachute and sank slowly to the ground.  He touched down lightly and took a few steps forward to avoid the falling parachute.  He had made his first, full and successful flight!

Jay took off the machine and set it in the grass.  He lay down next to it and looked at the sky.  His arms felt like jelly and his back ached from hanging, but it was well worth it.  He sat up and looked around.  He suddenly realized he didn’t know where he was.  He knew the general area, but was lost as to which direction to travel.  He searched his memory for a way out.  He had noticed the trees thinned out to the right of the clearing when he was flying, so decided to go that way.  He faced the direction he landed, and then faced right.  The sun was behind him, so he reckoned he faced east.  Jay picked up his gear and started walking.  Half an hour later, he came to a road.  He faced south, toward town, and started walking.  He ended up hitchhiking back to the cliff, where he got in his car and drove home.

The next day, he shared the experience with the bird watching group.  Everyone was amazed that he actually flew, and some didn’t believe him.  He didn’t mind that, because Jay knew they were only jealous.

“This is amazing,” Alex said excitedly. “We could make more of these, and sell them to everyone!”

“I don’t know”, Jay replied.

“Come on, Jay, it’s a good idea”

“It is, but I should make sure it’s perfect first.”

“OK,” Alex replied sadly.

So for the next month, Jay flew from his house every other day, and visited the cliff once a week.  He followed the same routine, leaving his car at the cliff and hitchhiking back.  He tried to see different parts of the forest.  Sometimes, he even brought a camera to take pictures.

One day, he noticed that the battery was lower than usual.  He thought it wasn’t a problem, and he had just flown a little longer.  He made sure the next time he visited the cliff to have the batter fully charged.  As he took off, it sounded like the blowers had a little extra strain.  He thought it was because they had so much use, and they needed to be replaced.  He would get to that tomorrow.  As he took off, the machine gave a strange shudder.  Jay didn’t think it was anything serious.

Jay flew normally for about half an hour.  He thought a bit, and decided he should explore in all directions.  He angled the blowers down and flapped hard, slowly rising higher and higher.  Jay noticed out of the corner of his eye that the climbing was draining the battery.  He angled down and flew flat again.  He closed his eyes for a minute and enjoyed the fight.  He opened his eyes to a shudder from the battery.  Looking at the gauge, he saw it was dangerously close to low.  He decided he should land immediately.

Jay powered down the blowers and tilted into a dive.  As he sped up, he considered that he might be going too fast.  So he leveled out and turned up the blowers.  They immediately sputtered and died with the battery.  Thinking quickly, Jay spread his wings to catch as mush air as possible to make up for the lost lift and trust.  The strain was tremendous, and Jay knew it was obviously imperative that he land.  He pulled with all his might to fold in the wings and dive.  As Jay reached one hundred feet above the trees, he spotted the landing clearing nearing.  He started to unfold the wings, but the rushing air snapped them out like a whip.  The sudden weight on the spine of the wings caused both to bend, and Jay watched in horror as the left wing snapped clean off.  The moment before it fell, a long feather caught the drawstring on the parachute.  Jay though he was very lucky as the parachute deployed, but his joy quickly turned to fear as one of the cords snapped, and the parachute flew uselessly behind him.  As the tree line passed feet below him, Jay realized this was the end.  He decided to be sure that it happened, and happened fast.  Jay swiftly unstrapped himself and dove free of the machine.  His head hit the ground first, the rest of his body following as his neck snapped under pressure.  He finally got his wish to rejoin her.

Weeks later, a group of hikers came across the clearing in the woods.  On the other side of the grass was a twisted heap of metal and plastic.  They wondered what it was and how it got there.  It didn’t seem to have a purpose, but it was hard to tell.  As they inspected it, they saw something in the woods that looked like a wing.  They placed it next to the heap and told the park officials.  The heap became a small monument to the mysteries of life.