Dedicated, long-time readers may recall columns I wrote back in 2017 and 2018 about my aviation bug. I’m sure you remember the story about the hovercraft a classmate and I built when we were 15, or the piece I penned about the Falcon series of hang gliders we built when we were 12. But our efforts to fly all started one December day in 1972. In fact, every December I relive in my mind that fateful Saturday afternoon and evening when Falcon 1 was conceived, designed, built, tested, and broken. Let’s just say it was a busy day. No pipers piping, no Lords a-leaping, no golden rings, but there may have been a few calling birds beckoning my classmate and me to take to the air. Well, at least to make an attempt.
It was a very, very cold day as we pilfered wood from the scrap pile in our furnace room and laid it out on our snowy back deck. Our inventory included several broken hockey sticks and some leftover 1X2s from an earlier project. To say we designed our flying machine on a cocktail napkin, or the back of an envelope, gives us far too much credit. In short, the lengths of the various pieces of wood we’d gathered dictated the design. In the end, we cobbled together a hang glider with a 12-foot wingspan along with a nose section and quite a large triangular tail that was 10 feet from stem to stern. Even though it’s a nautical term, I use “stern” intentionally, because aeronautical parlance just seems out of place, knowing how this story ends.
By the time we’d screwed, nailed, and glued the frame together – which was a struggle with our nearly-frostbitten fingers – it was already dark. That suited us fine, for the next step involved theft, always better under cover of darkness. You see, we needed something to cover our wings, and bedsheets seemed the perfect solution. Well, it wasn’t perfect in my mother’s eyes, but that’s a story for another day. I snuck into our house, slipped up to our linen closet, and “liberated” two bedsheets. I snagged a pair of scissors before heading back out into the night. We cut up the bedsheets to the appropriate dimensions and then used a staple gun to secure them to the frame. In short order, we had covered wings. Then a black plastic tarp was sacrificed to provide enough material to cover the nose and tail sections. Our flying machine was finished. No computer modelling. No wind tunnel testing. No weight-to-wing area calculations. Nothing. Just a reminder, we were 12 years old.
So, we dragged our creation down to Talbot Park at the end of our street on a toboggan (it was too heavy to carry) and set ourselves up at the top of the snow-covered hill. We were proud of Falcon 1. It was about as heavy as an anvil, but lacked the anvil’s aerodynamics. I must have lost the coin toss and was first up to attempt a test flight. It was so cold that I’d bundled up in a big way. I’d donned so many layers that I looked like the Michelin man. I was probably twice my summer weight. That certainly didn’t help my dream of “slipping the surly bonds of earth.” So, I sat on the toboggan, nearly crushed under the weight of our creation, as my co-conspirator pushed me down the hill.
Falcon 1 did in fact take flight… briefly. But regrettably, I was no longer attached to it. As I picked up speed, the wind caught the glider and wrenched it from my grip, nearly dislocating both shoulders. Falcon 1 took to the air momentarily before crashing and breaking apart halfway down the hill. I ended up in a heap at the bottom, happy that my arms were still attached.
By Christmas morning, my shoulders still hurt with each present I opened. Well, nobody said flying was easy. Just ask the Wright brothers.
A two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, Terry Fallis grew up in Leaside and is the award-winning writer of nine national bestsellers, all published by McClelland & Stewart. His most recent, A New Season, is now in bookstores.