Model Airplane?

© Photo copyright Philip Rychel

In room 22 of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt, there is a wooden object that appears very similar to a modern airplane or glider. In fact, it is so similar that some have offered it as proof that the ancient Egyptians possessed the technology of flight. The artifact (Special Register No. 6347; the number 33109 is written on the bottom of the port wing) is made of wood and has a length of 5.6 inches (14.2 cm) and a wingspan of 7.2 inches (18.3 cm). It was found in a tomb near Saqqara in 1898 and has been dated to about 200 B.C.

© Photo copyright Philip Rychel

The seed of the theory that the model represents an example of a working aircraft can be traced to Khalil Messiha, Professor of Anatomy for the Artists at Helwan University (and member of the Royal Aeromodellars Club, Egypt, and the Egyptian Aeronautical club). According to Messiha, (in Messiha, Khalil, Guirguis Messiha, Gamal Mokhtar, and Michael Frenchman. "African Experimental Aeronautics: A 2,000-Year-Old Model Glider" in Van Sertima, ed. Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, 1983, pp.92-99) the model is made of sycamore wood and weighs 39.120 gms. Of the wings he wrote, "One can note also that there is a Dihedral angle which is slightly unequal on both sides due to slight distortion of the wood, caused by the passage of time... The body is made of the same wood as the wing and has an aerofoil shape beautifully carved and smooth. Its nose is pyramidal in shape with one eye painted on its right surface." He added that "there is no trace of any decoration of 'feathers' painted on the body with the exception of the eye, and two faint reddish lines surrounding the belly under the grooves." He makes no mention of any holes on the top of the tail, nor did he observe grooves on the tail that might accommodate a tailplane. Everything about this Messiha's physical observation of the model appears to be accurate. He did add, however, "The lower part of the tail is broken [i.e. flat] which I think may be an evidence that the tail was attached there." It is notable that by close examination of the photographs, a flattening on top of the tail is also evident. He places great weight on the lack of feather decoration and the absence of legs as an indication that the model was not meant to represent a bird. The other bird models include these features, he insists. Of the model's flightworthiness, he wrote, "I have already made a similar balsa wood model, and added the tailplane (which I suppose was lost) and was not astonished to find that it could sail in the air for a few yards when thrown by hand." (p. 94) Messiha concluded that "This ancient aeroplane model represents a diminutive of an original monoplane still present in Saqqara." (p. 97; to see drawings of the model by Messiha and others, click here.)

The article in Blacks in Science is actually comprised of three articles (the first was quoted above). Gamal Mokhtar wrote that Messiha saw the model in its glass case and saw that it was different from the other birds "because birds' tails are horizontal, while aeroplanes have vertical tails." (p. 97) Michael Frenchman, however, added some of his own embellishments to the story. He wrote that Messiha "came across the glider model in 1969 when he was looking through a box of bird models in one of the Cairo Museum's storerooms... Furthermore there is a groove under the fin for a tailplane which is missing." (p. 98) Here he misquotes Messiha, and perhaps begins the oft-repeated "groove-on-the-tail" misinformation. He also wrote that the model "looks remarkably futuristic and bears a close resemblance to the American Hercules transport aircraft which has a distinctive reverse dihedral wing." Again, he concluded that "the find is a scale model of a full-sized flying machine of some kind." (p. 99)

In Atlantis Rising (Issue Number 5), there appeared an article by Joseph Robert Jochmans on the "Top 10 Out-of-Place Artifacts (O.O.P.s)." The fifth was subtitled "Flight in Ancient Egypt:"

In 1898 a curious winged object was discovered in the tomb of Pa-di-Imen in north Saqqara, Egypt dated to about 200 BC. Because the birth of modern aviation was still several years away, when the strange artifact was sent to the Cairo Museum, it was catalogued and then shelved among other miscellaneous items to gather dust.

Seventy years later, Dr. Kahlil Messiha, an Egyptologist and archaeologist, was examining a Museum display labeled bird figurines. While most of the display were indeed bird sculptures, the Saqqara artifact was certainly not. It possessed characteristics never found on birds, yet which are part of modern aircraft design. Dr. Messiha, a former model plane enthusiast, immediately recognized the aircraft features and persuaded the Egyptian Ministry of Culture to investigate.

Made of very light sycamore the craft weighs 0.5 oz. with straight and aerodynamically shaped wings, spanning about 7 inches. A separate slotted piece fits onto the tail precisely like the back tail wing on a modern plane.

A full-scale version could have flown carrying heavy loads, but at low speeds, between 45 and 65 miles per hour. What is not known, however, is what the power source was. The model makes a perfect glider as it is. Even though over 2,000 years old, it will soar a considerable distance with only a slight jerk of the hand. Fully restored balsa replicas travel even farther.

Messiha notes that the ancient Egyptians often built scale models of everything familiar in their daily lives and placed them in their tombs, temples, ships, chariots, servants, animals and so forth. Now that we have found a model plane, Messiha wonders if perhaps somewhere under the desert sands there may yet be unearthed the remains of life-sized gliders.

© Photo copyright Philip Rychel

The 15 February 1998 issue of The Augusta Chronicle featured an article by Randall Floyd titled "Flight may have begun before Wrights:"

In 1969, while sorting through a box of old exhibits in the basement of the Cairo museum, Egyptologist Khalil Messiha found what appeared to be a 2,200-year-old model airplane, complete with wings, landing gear and an aerodynamically designed body.

The object had been found in a 2,000-year-old tomb near Saqqara in 1898. The archaeologist was stunned. What would a perfectly scaled model of an airplane be doing in a tomb of such antiquity?

His conclusion: "Apparently the ancients possessed long-forgotten technologies," he said. Egypt's Ministry of Culture agreed. A committee set up to investigate the matter concluded that the 7-inch-long model, built of light sycamore wood and weighing only 1.11 ounces, seemed to incorporate principles of aircraft design that had taken modern engineers decades of experimentation to discover and perfect.

Moreover, they found, the glider worked. More than two millennia after its construction, it still sailed easily through the air at only the slightest flick of the hand.

© Photo copyright Philip Rychel

The above articles assert that the model is the pinnacle of flightworthiness. But is it? Martin Gregorie of Harlow, Essex, a designer, builder, and flyer of Free Flight model gliders with more than 30 years experience, thinks not:

The requirements for a Free Flight model glider to be automatically stable in flight are that it should:

  1. Balance somewhere between 25% and 60% of the wing chord back from the leading edge. The wing chord is the average width of the wing, measured from front to back. A glance at the bird shows that the body is made from a single piece of wood whose proportions are such that the balance point is at or behind the trailing edge of the wing. The bird's head region has clearly never had a weight attached to it or buried within it. Such a weight would be needed to bring the balance point forward into the range given above.

  2. Have a horizontal tail surface of around 20 - 25% of the wing area. Despite some claims to the contrary, no such tail surface currently exists and there are no traces of a tail plane's attachment point on the bird's fin or rear body. The fin is the vertical tail surface that forms the rear of the bird's body.

  3. Be shaped to provide spiral stability. The presence of a large fin at the rear of the body must be balanced by a dihedralled wing if the bird is to glide without tipping over sideways into an terminal spiral dive. A dihedralled wing is one with the tips raised above the center of the wing like virtually all passenger planes and model aircraft. The bird has the opposite wing arrangement. Its wing tips are drooped to give anhedral, which would only serve to increase the bird's spiral instability.

As can be easily seen, the bird meets none of these requirements for flight, so it is quite unlikely that it ever flew or that accurate replicas could fly.

(Read Gregorie's test of a scale model in Flying the Saqqara Bird.)

Is the Saqqara artifact meant to represent an airplane? This seems unlikely especially in view of the absence of any evidence of the considerable support technology that would of necessity be associated with flight industry (such as wheels, engine machinery, parts manufacture, fuel production, etc.) It would seem strange indeed if the Egyptians flew around in high-tech aircraft and left only a single wooden model (and, some would claim, a few glyphs carved above a temple doorway) as evidence of their airborne activities. What, then, might the model actually represent?

Most Egyptologists think that the artifact is a bird with outstretched wings, though the tail is quite dissimilar to any known bird's tail. Though it is not apparent in the accompanying photographs, painted details of the eyes and beak are still observable on the model. There also remains a bit of paint on the upper edge of the tail, and it is possible that more detail was originally provided but has worn away over time. There is also a graceful curve on the bottom of the model delineating the anatomical transition of the body to the head and the tail, very much in the manner of a bird in flight. But there is still the matter of the peculiar shape of the tail.

Below are details of the tops of the masts from three reliefs depicting boats, all used in the Opet festivals. The first is the masthead of a boat of Ramesses III, the second is the mast of a boat in the reign of Herihor, and the third is the masthead of the ship of state Mery Amun. All of these reliefs are found in the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak and date to the late New Kingdom.

masthead bird masthead bird masthead bird
Illustrations copyright Dilwyn Jones Boats, University of Texas Press, 1995, pp. 58, 59, 64.

Could the Saqqara artifact have served as a sort of weathervane to indicate wind direction on a boat, practical or ceremonial? The vane-like tail might suggest such a use. Given its size, it appears unlikely that it would have been set atop a mainmast, however, as the reliefs above depict. It is also possible that the artifact served as a child's toy, though its design would not allow it to glide like a bird if hurled through the air.

In any case, of the two theories that the artifact is intended to represent either a bird or an aircraft, the former is the only one tenable based on the corpus of evidence that is known to exist.

The photographs of the wooden model are used with the kind permission of Philip Rychel.

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