If birds have legs, why don’t planes?

The Interstate 5 runs along the entire West Coast, connecting California, Oregon, and Washington, from Mexico to Canada, but I only care about the flat, straight piece of asphalt that I drove through for six hours this week, stretching along the length of the Central Valley.

One could describe the scenery around that piece of road as beautiful, but I won’t — it’s just boring. It’s the same rows of orchards over and over again and fields of a yellow plant that might be some staple crop, but just seems a bit dead. There’s no awe to be found in the immense flatness and emptiness either when you’re surrounded by huge trucks and cars barreling by at ninety miles an hour.

It’s six hours where the biggest source of excitement was seeing a billboard for Pea Soup Andersen’s, then, half an hour later, seeing that Pea Soup Andersen’s had adopted a stretch of the highway, and, finally after an hour, passing by the restaurant itself.

All of this is just to say that I’ve finally accomplished a lifelong goal of writing about a small piece of Americana in a cabin in the woods by Lake Tahoe: a real writerly thing to do.

The sky was shockingly clear on the drive up without a single cloud in sight. Clouds weren’t the only thing that couldn’t be found, though. I struggled the entire time to find a single bird in the sky. For a split second, I had a glimpse a few birds fluttering around underneath an overpass — I can’t recall seeing any other birds.

So, if birds have legs, why don’t planes? Every time I bring up this question, I’m immediately rebutted with the fact that the landing gear on most planes are, in essence, legs. I blather on about knees and muscles, but the last time I learned about anatomy must have been in 9th grade, so the truth is I have no great response; I’ve already sunk way too much time and effort into this topic to abandon it now. Let us work off the premise that landing gear are not legs.

The next question that tends to get asked is “why do planes need legs?” I’ve come up with good list of reasons why planes should have legs:

  1. Legs are useful.
  2. Things with legs would benefit from their utility.
  3. Why not?

I don’t think Allyn is actually a bioengineer yet, since he’s still in school, but I’ll call him a bioengineer anyways since it lends more credence to everything he says.

I asked Allyn, a bioengineer, our titular question and he replied with an image of a bald eagle with an extremely muscular chest and arms. I can only assume these features are photoshopped, but we’ve already established my lack of anatomy knowledge, so who can be sure?

As if that image alone was not helpful enough, Allyn also informs me that, among other things, birds use their legs to “stand on things, walk, pick things up, attack, grab, grasp, fish for bugs, land, stabilize a takeoff” — we humans use ours similarly.

Source: I have no idea how to cite this: Allyn texted it to me

Should planes not be able to “stand on things” or “pick things up” or “stabilize a takeoff”? I’m no expert on aviation, but I’d argue that if a plane could do that, it would be pretty cool. That’s the main reason, I think: it would be cool if planes had legs and could do stuff that things with legs could do.

The difference in the legginess of birds and planes reflects a clear dichotomy in our current understanding of the world — that of evolution and engineering. We’ve wasted a lot of time discussing why planes don’t have legs when the crux of the question is actually its inverse: why don’t birds have wheels?

In elementary school, I read Hubert Invents the Wheel by Claire Montgomery. It’s a classic children’s story of a Sumerian kid inventing the wheel and, ultimately, defeating his Assyrian enemies. At best, the writing is mediocre and its historical accuracy questionable, but the main idea of the story is the same: there were no wheels before Hubert. Birds had no wheels.

Here, I could talk about the feasibility of biological wheels, but, once again, my knowledge of anatomy is wanting. The fact remains that birds don’t have wheels. If I know anything about evolution (and I don’t), if wheels were good, then birds would have evolved to have wheels. This still holds true if you believe in creationism — if wheels were good, then God would have given birds wheels.

Who were the Wright brothers to challenge God Himself? This isn’t strictly true, actually. The Wright Flyer, the first plane pioneered by the brothers, didn’t have any wheels; it was launched by a system of rails, but that’s neither here nor there. I just used the Wright brothers as a proxy for all aerospace engineers — for humanity itself, actually. Who are we to think that we know more than God — to not even try and put legs on planes?

I’ve been tackling this issue primarily as an intellectual exercise, assuming that planes with legs don’t exist, but they must have at one point in history. We’re humans; we do these kinds of things all the time just to see what happens.

Yet, I can find no reference to a plane with legs other than this gorgeous illustration. I’m very confused — more than I am normally. Why has there not yet been a plane with legs?

Ian Mork Art: July 2011
Source: Ian Mork via ianmork.blogspot.com

Allyn wasn’t the only engineer I talked to. Cole is a real engineer — a manufacturing engineer, he tells me. It’s not clear — to me, at least — what a manufacturing engineer actually does. One assumes that they find a way to manufacture things, possibly planes with legs.

Unlike Allyn, Cole was much less receptive of my question, if not downright combative. Not only did Cole not send me a picture of a bald eagle, he tried to turn me off of asking this question at all, giving me curt replies, as if it’s an absurd idea that planes should have legs.

As far as I’ve heard, Cole has Top Secret government clearance, but I’m not one hundred percent sure — I’ve been a pretty bad friend and I don’t really know what’s going on in his life. We should hang out more, Cole. Obviously not right now in person, since there’s a pandemic, but, just in general.

I love conspiracy theories — not for the theories themselves (they’re usually absurd), but I love the communities behind them –, so I’m here to peddle another one: they’ve already built planes with legs, but they’re covering it up. Who are they?

I had direct messaged the Audubon Society and the National Air and Space Museum on Twitter with our titular question. It’s been four days now and their silence is telling.

It’s abundantly clear that among countless others, the Audubon Society, the National Air and Space Museum, and, somehow, my friend Cole from high school have joined forces to put legs on planes.

Usually, I am alone in these conspiracies, but, this time, I think I have an ally: Ian Mork, the illustrator of the plane with legs. I’ve tracked down Ian Mork — he’s an animator and character designer in Seattle. What else is in Seattle?

It’s where Boeing offers the “The Future of Flight Aviation Center & Boeing Tour.” Are planes with legs the future of flight? I leave the reader with only one more thought:

Source: I made this myself. I spent too long on it.

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