Edinburgh International Science Festival;Madflap flightshow;Curriculum

5th February 1999 at 00:00
Douglas Blane follows Scotland's pioneer aviators from the virgin flight

John Damian, alchemist at the court of James IV, tried to divert attention from his failure to transmute base metals into gold by declaring that he was going to fly from the walls of Stirling Castle.

Pausing to strap elaborate wings made from pigeon feathers to his arms, he launched himself from the top of the castle cliffs and plummeted to earth. A dung heap broke his fall and he survived.

"His first words were 'next time I think I'll use eagle feathers'," Laurie Barbour tells the schoolchildren at his Madflap Flightshow. "But like most of the early pioneers of flying, Damian was on the wrong track." He illustrates by vigorously flapping the cardboard wings attached to his own arms. Despite his best efforts and the noisy encouragement of the children nothing happens, and he wisely refrains from trying to emulate Damian's demonstration - school science shows are meant to be exciting, not fatal.

"I can't fly by flapping my wings and neither can anyone else, because humans aren't strong enough," he says.

"Flapping isn't the answer anyway. Look." He uses two feathers, a straw and a piece of plasticine to make a small craft which he throws into the air. It glides across the room. "See. The secret of flight was hidden in the shape of the feathers, but people got confused by watching birds flap their wings, and thought that must be the answer."

The Flightshow recalls the achievements of aviation pioneer Percy Pilcher:

"Percy was half Scottish, and in the 1890s was well ahead of the American aviators. He was almost ready to install an engine in one of his gliders when it crashed during a demonstration and he was killed. That was the end of Scotland's chances of being the first country to develop powered flight. You can still see Pilcher's glider, the 'Hawk', in the Museum of Flight at North Berwick."

Planes, kites and hot-air balloons put in an appearance during the show, as well as scientific concepts like density, pressure, the molecular structure of air, and even the Bernoulli effect, which explains how planes fly.

Mr Barbour says: "We've found that the young ones readily grasp the principles of flight. Even those with behaviour problems enjoy the show."

Madflap Flightshow is particularly suitable for Primary 4 to Primary 7. To book a performance before March 12 call the EISF box office, tel: 0131 473 2072. For other dates, tel: 01506 652713

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