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Flight Lines: Naming aircraft after birds, a natural

The aptly named Gossamer Albratross is seen here during test flights prior to making a successful crossing of the English Channel in 1979. Photo courtesy of NASA

The connection between mankind and birds has been with us since we first walked upright. From cave art in prehistoric times to modern depictions on Christmas cards and other forms of art, birds have forever seeped into our collective psyche. Some instances, mostly older, cater to our darker side with creepy mythological explanations for things we didn't quite understand. Mostly, though, bird references throughout the ages have been those of a brighter nature.

I got to thinking about one area where, in modern times, we tend to borrow from the grace, elegance, and power of birds. That is in the naming of airplanes. And why not? After all, these are creatures that planted in us the seeds by which the taming of the air grew to inspire us. Were it not for birds, I wonder just how we would have even considered taking to the skies. Perhaps we would have anyway, but I tend to think the birds at least gave us a nudge in that direction.

Examples of this are all around us today. Cessna aircraft lauched the single-engine 177 Cardinal in 1968 and produced it for 10 years. It is still quite popular today. "Cardinal," it seems to me, is an appropriate moniker for a handsome light airplane carrying a small number of passengers to fairly short destinations.

During the sixties, Cessna introduced their twin-engine 421 and gave it the nickname, Golden Eagle. Obviously this name is meant to portray something different in the mind of the pilot or potential owner.

Strong, powerful and elegant come to mind.

Paralleling a similar train of thought, there's a line of business jets manufactured by the French company, Dassault. Falcons come in many models but most are large and designed for intercontinental hops with ample room for passengers. The apt name, "falcon," evidently, evokes the notion of sleek design and speed.

But it's in the military realm that bird names prevail. Those designed for combat almost inevitably refer to birds of prey, a rather natural course to take when the usage of such aircraft are meant to project power and might.

In older times, Grumman seemed to like the idea of bird names. The J2F Duck was an amphibious airplane. Appropriate I'd say. They also produced the JRF Goose, also an amphib. Curtiss also produced a couple of older warbirds such as the P-40 Warhawk along with the A-25A Shrike (a small bird of prey).

In more modern times the trend continues. Seen over the skies of Fargo and flown by the Happy

Hooligans just a few years ago was the F-16 Fighting Falcon. The US Marines still fly the AV-8 Harrier, known for its ability to take off and land vertically. There's also the F-15 Eagle still in use and a fairly new fighter, the F-22 Raptor.

Lest we leave the rotor-wing arena untouched, virtually everyone is familiar with the UH-60 Black Hawk, made known mostly from a dark episode in our recent military history depicted in a popular Hollywood movie.

Aircraft designed for specific missions not necessarily associated with combat have brought nicknames appropriate for their use. The celebrated SR-71 spy plane is named the Blackbird. It is indeed black and has flown countless missions high above disputed airspace to give our command authorities a look at enemy territory.

Another noncombatant the Navy happens to fly is the E-2 Hawkeye, an aircraft used for surveilling the skies above the oceans for enemy signals. The Marines fly the V-22 Osprey. It's a unique design with huge tilt rotor engines to get off the ground and land vertically. I assume it speaks to the real bird's ability to leap into the air after catching fish.

Of all the aircraft named after birds, though, there is my personal favorite: the Gossamer Albatross. This was a human-powered (by a bicyclist!) aircraft that fits the name perfectly. The word "gossamer" means "something extremely light, flimsy, or delicate." Indeed this was a thin-fabric airplane designed with incredibly light but long wings for soaring, just like a real albatross. In 1979 it completed a successful flight across the English Channel.

It is certain we will continue to bring birds into our culture as long as we remain on the planet. The animals are just too evocative not to invite into our thought processes. Equally as certain, as long as we continue to manufacture flying machines, there will be the model that occasionally gets tagged with the name of a bird.

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