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Model of Extinct Reptile Did Fine on Film : Pterodactyl Flight: a Pterrible Ptragedy

May 18, 1986|ROBERT SHOGAN | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The much-heralded first public flight of a reproduction of a giant pterodactyl ended in a crash landing at Andrews Air Force Base on Saturday, in view of a throng of Armed Forces Day spectators and a battery of press and television cameras.

The radio-controlled model of the extinct reptile, which has an 18-foot wing span, was airborne less than a minute, but Ray Morgan, one of the crestfallen designers who spent two years developing the creature for the Smithsonian Institution at a cost of about $700,000, said: "To us, it seemed like forever."

Soon after the man-made flying lizard was catapulted skyward by a high-speed winch, its tail rudder assembly fell off prematurely, Morgan said. The 44-pound model went into a nose dive. It recovered briefly, but then shuddered and plummeted to earth when its neck cracked and its head fell off. Both legs also broke as the model hit the ground.

"Now we know why it's extinct," one of the designers said.

Post-Mortem Planned

Smithsonian scientists hauled away the corpus for an "autopsy" to determine the extent of damage and to determine whether another public flight will be attempted.

The plastic mock-up of a pterodactyl, one of the last members of the dinosaur family to become extinct about 65 million years ago, was patterned after fossilized remains unearthed in Texas in 1972.

The original creature had a wing span of about 36 feet, but the Smithsonian settled for a half-scale model which, with its eight-channel radio receiver and custom-built autopilot, roughly resembled a huge model airplane.

Although tens of thousands of people turned out for Armed Forces Day activities at the huge air base in suburban Maryland, probably only a fraction of the crowd saw the brief flight, which took place nearly half a mile from the roped-off spectators' section.

Disappointed as they were with the abortive flight, those involved in the project claimed that the Smithsonian had already gotten its money's worth out of the model because of the pterodactyl's major role in a new movie, "On the Wing," which depicts the relationship between natural and mechanical flight.

Flown on Location

After testing at El Mirage, the dry lake bed in California's Mojave Desert, the pterodactyl made 21 successful flights while the movie was being produced.

The film will be screened for visitors to the National Air and Space Museum starting next month, and is to be distributed around the world. Thus, Smithsonian officials said after the crash, the public will be able to see the pterodactyl model flapping its wings in the sky even if it never flies again.

Paul MacCready, who supervised the development of the model at his firm, AeroVironment Inc. of Monrovia, said before the takeoff: "As far as I'm concerned, it was a huge success as soon the film went into the can in January. If it flies today, that's just gravy."

Demonstration of Flight

Although there was no gravy, the experience did suggest a lesson bearing on man's continuing struggle to master nature. MacCready, best known for success with human-powered and solar-powered aircraft, said that "the idea of this model was to show the connection between technology and nature."

MacCready expressed concern that in the current absorption with technical advances, nature's values and verities may be forgotten. He warned that "in 200 years, we could wind up with an earth with nothing but technology. We could have just 50 specimens of animal life and 50 specimens of plant life."

And although the public flop of the pterodactyl disappointed MacCready, it seemed to underline his basic point: Nature can still teach technology a thing or two.

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