Expecting to Fly
The wind is fierce this morning. Clouds scud at speed across the grey dawn sky. The metal bar is waving wildly from west to east; his grip has to be strong and his stance flexible. The dawn chorus of birdsong is unusually loud and varied for a harsh winter’s day. His piercing black eyes survey the garden below as it gradually comes to light in the weak early sunshine. His extraordinarily keen eyesight is such that he could pick out a small object or the slightest movement hundreds of yards distant.
February is always a hard month. It takes longer to find sufficient food when more of it is needed to maintain body temperature and strength. There was an early frost, but it had not been cold enough for a couple of days, now, to freeze the ground into a completely unyielding state. He knows there will be food. Not only would the grass yield some nourishment first, but the regularly refilled wire box and the table beneath it would – later – provide sustenance. The occupant of this place is consistent in replenishing it.
He watches as three enormously fat woodpigeons strut around below him; then four; then six. Three or four more – the lookouts – sit in the trees. They were natural survivors. Their numbers were growing every year, not at the expense of his family – the corvus family of crows, ravens and rooks – but at the cost of the smaller breeds, especially the sparrows, dunnocks and wrens. The pigeons were greedy, belligerent and persistent. Once found, a productive garden would remain a hunting spot for weeks; for months on end. He lets go his grip on the swaying aerial, feels the wind fill his outstretched wings and glides slowly and precisely to the middle of the green, frosted lawn. The woodpigeons scatter; they know to make way for an uncompromising bruiser. Six fat, grey forms settle, then sit in the surrounding trees with the others and become the observers, as he had been.
He begins his striding walk to scan and peck. Yes, there is some bounty here: grubs, worms and the very smallest insects. He lets out a loud “caw”; then another; then another. In seconds, his mate and another male execute fluttering landings around him. They acknowledge one another and fan out to walk and scan and peck, perfectly coordinating so that the grass is properly scanned but that there is always one of them looking around for trouble. In a second, they can survey a huge distance around them. They work in silence, with the sound of building commuter traffic nearby beginning to intrude and the soft cooing from the fat woodpigeon sextet, and the others continuing from the trees. The silence is shattered by the noisy arrival of a pair of magpies, the clever, swaggering ruffians of the corvidae family. The crows scatter a little more widely. The magpies don’t stride, they hop around their chosen search area. The pickings are good for everyone. It starts to rain a little. The three crows shake their black plumage. The sleet and rain will help them by softening up the ground a little.
Then suddenly they were all flapping upwards against the stiff breeze and gone. A window had opened in the house.
It was Hera.
She had thrown on a careless sweater and opened her bedroom window to take in the morning-song and to watch the birds, as was her habit.
As ever, she had tried to be quiet and stealthy, but even the wood pigeons had manically fluttered out of the trees in a flurry of lost feathers and away. The crows from the lawn soared upwards, at a sharp angle and at speed. She cursed her failure to be furtive, leaning on the window sill to be patient for the birds’ return. She was no ornithologist, but she was a birdwatcher. It was their flight, above all, that fascinated her. She studied it intently and was determined to learn. After all, she had a deadline to meet.
Hera spent an hour at the window, the birds gradually returning and getting back to their work. A bold sparrow, a robin (there was always the cheeky robin) and some blue tits joined in. She was eventually driven in by the cold and the rumblings of breakfast hunger. She closed the window against the wind, dressed properly, putting her precious silver bird necklace around her neck and went down the stairs to make her regular tea and toast. Honey or jam? Honey, today. The small kitchen quickly warmed up as she flicked on the fan heater and central heating, distractedly also putting two slices of homemade bread under the grill.
The little two-up, two-down cottage was a cosy place to live. She had made it so, decorating in warm colours (tending to dark), having double-glazing fitted secondary to the old lead-light windows and insulating the roof and all of the gaps and cracks that these old houses develop as they reach their dotage. She snapped the small pine wall-table up into place from its resting position and savoured her strong Yorkshire tea and bitter-sweet manuka honey. The next job was filling the bird-feeders. There were four, each geared to a size or variety of bird. Then, today, she would concentrate on Hinduism. The many stories found in the texts of levitation by siddhis – mystics and gurus who had achieved mystic powers – needed to be studied in further detail.
She had studied comparative religions at university and now, years later, revisited her notes and textbooks with a new slant – a focus on the ability for deep religious belief to enable the conquest of gravity. There could not be many theology graduates who had been driven back to their earlier learnings by months of study of aeronautics and the physiology of birds. Online lectures had helped her with that.
The principles of flight are universal to birds and to flying machines of all kinds. Looking at bird flight through an aeronautics lens, Hera had learned that there are four main forces that you have to worry about: weight, lift, drag and thrust.
Weight, of course, is a force produced by gravity in the downward direction, and every flyer has to produce lift in order to counteract that weight. Anything moving through air also experiences drag, which slows it down, so there must be a forward-moving force, called thrust, to oppose the force of drag. These two pairs of forces – weight and lift, drag and thrust – have to be roughly balanced in order for a bird or plane to fly. No matter how much she increased her understanding through study, Hera still found it incredible and exciting that an object (bird or plane) can defy its weight and gravity to soar into the sky.
In order for something to fly, it needs to generate enough lift to counteract its own weight. How a bird or plane creates this lift was explained to her by the Bernoulli effect. Bird wings are shaped so that the distance from the front to the back over the top of the wing is greater than the distance under the wing. Yet, the same amount of air must flow over both the top of the wing and the bottom. In order for the same amount of air to pass over the longer distance on top, the air on top must move faster than it does over the bottom of the wing. The air over the wing is at a lower pressure. This is that Bernoulli effect. If a bird is moving fast enough, the force from the pressure difference, which is called the lift force, equals or exceeds the weight of the bird and the bird is able to fly.
When looking at the amount of lift that a pair of wings can produce (and hence the amount of weight that they can support), a few factors come into play: wing size, airspeed, air density, and the angle of the wings with respect to the direction of flight (called angle of attack).
A wing twice as large can carry twice as much weight. She’d struggled a little with Newton’s Second Law of Motion, but eventually grasped the air speed principle that if a bird flies twice as fast, it generates four times as much lift.
Weather conditions do affect a bird in flight, but the calculations of altitude air density that affect a plane rarely apply to a bird, of course. If a plane flies at a high altitude of 39,000 feet, where the air density is a quarter of the air density at sea level, then it must fly twice as fast to maintain the same amount of lift. Hera was always very attentive to the flight statistics on her in-flight screen.
She had taken many photos of birds in flight, noting how they held their wings. The pinboard above her desk was covered in them. For a large bird, the critical angle of the wing relative to the direction of travel is about 20 degrees. Above this the air moving over the wing stops flowing smoothly, causing a large loss in lift. Birds can adjust the angle of attack of their wings to suit circumstances, but for long distance flights, they hold their wings at an angle of around 6 degrees. It was a wonder of nature that birds who had never studied this stuff instinctively got it all right, thought Hera, practically from the day they fell out of the nest.
She had come to an understanding with herself that the human body was simply not going to make it as a flying entity. The self-imposed deadline of her 25th birthday was fast approaching. Hera had flown a light aircraft, a glider, a helicopter and (the only one that scared her) a microlight. She had jumped out of a plane with a parachute, off a cliff with a paraglider, from a speeding boat with a parasail and into a tube of high-pressure air to skydive indoors. She had found each of these experiences both joyful and exhilarating, but at no point did she feel that she had truly left behind the lead in her Doc Martens boots. There had to be something else; not physical, not mechanical. Something else. Something mental; metaphysical; spiritual, even. If she was to leave the earth in an unsupported flight, she realised, it was her mind that was going to be the power behind it, not her muscles. She was convinced that she could make it happen.
Four months to go.
As a little girl, Hera had always sought the high points. She was first to the top of the old castle towers; first to the brow of the hill; fast to the skyscraper viewing platform. High: she had to be high; near the sky. Driven, pre-occupied and constantly distracted by her curiosity for the secret of flight, Hera had not formed any lasting friendships. Her acquaintances liked her – variously describing her as “wacky”, “kooky”, “eccentric”, “away with the fairies” or – more unkindly – “nuts”. Her almost ethereal presence at parties, the more esoteric festivals and other events in her signature long, flowing, flower patterned skirts and Doc Martens heavy boots – often in wild colours – was always welcomed, but she invariably left those events alone. She preferred the solitary comforts of her small cottage and its bird filled garden.
Hera fell in with an eclectic crowd to attend festivals of music, mind and body. She had avoided the temptation to join them in taking drugs, even though her flying ambitions were seen by certain of those friends as a euphemism for experiencing a hallucinogenic, drug-induced high. They didn’t understand.
She had travelled widely, both as part of her university studies and otherwise. In Cambodia and Myanmar she had spent time with devotees of Yogi Milarepa, a Vajrayana Buddhist guru who was famed for his ability to levitate and to walk, rest and sleep above the ground. It was a fringe group, with conventional Buddhists regarding these as occult powers, not to be encouraged. Hera was not a fool – she knew that there was no definite “scientific” evidence of the unassisted raising of a human body by spiritual means. But why did absolutely every religion contain some reference to it, if it was baseless?
In India, she had been cheered by the keen interest amongst Hindus in her quest. In the Sanskrit language, the power of levitation is called laghiman: “lightness”. The Char Dham (four abodes) is a set of four pilgrimage sites in India. Hindus believe that visiting these sites helps achieve moksha (salvation). Every Hindu is encouraged to visit the Char Dhams during one’s lifetime. They are hundreds of miles apart; Hera visited two of them: Puri and Rameswaram, in the west and the south. A very elderly and much revered Yogi in the resplendent 12th-century Puri Jagannatha Temple told her that, as a boy in 1936, he had seen Yogi Subbayah Pullavar levitate into the air for four minutes in front of a large crowd. He had been a lifelong believer in the power of religious belief and meditation to achieve this, ever since. Hera thought she would explode with joy at this “evidence”.
During her brief stay in Puri, she had patiently tried the techniques herself. The quietly humming devotees and the intense incense in the small, windowless temple room made her feel a lightness, an absence of weight in her body as she stood in the middle of the chanting circle. She wanted to skip, but it seemed better to stay in one place. There was a blazing clarity in her mind’s eye that made her headache. The hum of the mantra continued. She could no longer see the brightly-clad group of heavily-hirsute and bearded men. She scrunched her toes into the soles of her soft temple slippers so as to check the feel of the earth she stood on. She could not feel it. Was this it, at last?
It wasn’t. She gave up after an hour of the exhausting heat and concentration. But, she reasoned, when ancient Hellenism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Gnosticism each had so many references to what she was seeking, how could it be a mere myth? Even the usually more prosaic Christianity readily yielded the stories of Jesus walking on water; Saint Francis of Assisi being “suspended four cubits above the earth”; Saint Joseph of Cupertino reportedly being levitated high in the air for over an hour; Seraphim of Sarov – the Russian Orthodox saint – was seen by no less than emperor Alexander the First to levitate over the ground for long periods. She would continue her quest.
Hera had been out of touch with her small group of friends for some time. They began to be concerned, particularly when her twenty-fifth birthday came and went. It was her habit to celebrate special occasions with them.
She seemed simply to have disappeared. Two of her friends had come to call when they had become worried by unanswered phone calls and text messages. Each had asked the neighbours either side of the pale-blue-doored “Bird’s Nest” cottage if they had seen her. No; not for a couple of weeks, at least. The university library, where she worked, had not seen her for weeks also getting no responses to their attempts to contact her.
In the garden, one of the regular visiting magpie pair alights heavily on the upper bough of the tallest tree – a hugely spread and tall sycamore. The glint of something shiny there had caught its eye. The enormous, blue/black-and-white-feathered bird tugs at the metal chain. It’s attracted by the reflections of the sun on the silver surface. Contrary to tradition, Magpies are more disturbed than attracted by shiny things, but their innate curiosity draws them to investigate. Highly intelligent, they like to know about everything that is around them. Now heavily leaved in the early summer, the tree is full of various birds singing and flitting to and fro. The magpie pulls at and turns over the necklace to reveal the silver bird motif with outstretched wings. It is Hera’s precious silver necklace. The one she wears every day. Perhaps another avian kleptomaniac could have flown up and put it there or dropped it whilst trying to carry it away. But how would it have been outside and accessible? Fifty feet above the ground, it could not have been thrown there from below.
Or perhaps it had been dropped down into the tree from much higher up, by a free spirit, finally in joyous flight.
Inspired by “Expecting to Fly”, written by Neil Young; performed by Buffalo Springfield.
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