Feature Articles – Prehistoric “plane” flies!
Three Germans succeeded in developing a scale model of what they believe is the first airplane, found as an archaeological discovery in South America.
by Philip Coppens
In 1968, the Swiss author Erich von Däniken remarked in his world bestseller Chariots of the Gods? that, in his opinion, an artefact recovered from Columbia was nothing short of a prehistoric airplane. The statement was controversial, as archaeologists had catalogued the artefact as an insect. True, there is a difference in scale between an insect and an airplane, but what both had been studying was a small golden artefact, on display in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. Its explanation states: “gold artefact, a stylised insect, from the Quimbaya culture, Antioquia province, Columbia, ca. 1000-1500 AD.” Von Däniken was on a mission to try and find evidence of a prehistoric, high technological civilisation. Not content with making more out of the Atlantis molehill than had already occurred, his main interest were artefacts or buildings that were visible to each and all – but which he felt had been misinterpreted. This, von Däniken felt, was one such artefact: an airplane, not an insect.
There are several small “insects” that share more in common with an airplane than an insect. Some of these are on display in the Gold Museum of Bogota, Colombia. They are approximately 1500 years old, between two to three centimeters in length and were recovered from royal tombs. Today, the Museum has a collection of 33,000 plus objects and is one of the few sites where some of the golden artifacts from Southern America civilisations can be seen; most of the gold was taken by the Spanish in the 16th century, melted, and shipped to Spain. Gold was considered to be a sacred metal, reflecting the creative, life-giving energy of the sun. In the Pijaos collection, the Museum has identified a number of pendants in the shape of fish and insects, even though the wings are attached underneath the body; and what to make of the upright tail fins? In 1994, three Germans, Algund Eenboom, Peter Belting and Conrad Lübbers, decided to create a scale model of the “airplane”. They wanted to experiment with its flight capabilities. At the same time, they began to draw parallels between the features of this artefact and other similar artefacts – as well as insects, and airplanes.
The trio soon realised that the people of South America were always able depict insects and other flying animals anatomically correct. If this gold artefact was indeed an insect, than it was still an anomaly, as this “insect” was not depicted anatomically correct. The wings were at the bottom of the body, not the top; all insects have their wings at the top of the body. Still, even some planes do; in fact, most propeller planes do; only the more modern jet engine planes have their wings attached to the bottom of the body.
Eenboom, Beltung and Lübbers concluded this could therefore not be an insect. The design of the artefact nevertheless corresponded perfectly with the design of aircraft – and even the space shuttle and the supersonic Concorde. By 1996, Peter Belting had created a scale model – an area he was well-versed in, so much so that his interest in the field of scale models had led to his decision to study the Columbian artefact. The scale model was baptised “Goldflyer I”. Built at a scale of 16:1, the plane measured 90 cm long, with a wingspan of approx. 1 metre. It weighed 750 gram. A propeller was added to the nose of the plane and the wings were equipped with the necessary flaps and rolls.
Early test flights were a success. The plane had a stable flight path and was able to make accurate and comfortable landings. In short: the artefact behaved as a plane was meant to behave.
Next in the “BBL” development line was the Goldflyer II. The model had the same dimensions, but was equipped with a landing gear and a jet engine. The engine itself was a “Fun jet”, able to make 20,000 rotations per minute. The modification from a propeller to a jet engine was made as the scale model did not have a propeller. If it had, it would have been an ominous task for established scientists to label the artefact an insect… If the “insect” had been an airplane, then it was clear that its mode of propulsion was a jet engine.
The next problem to overcome was the location of the jet engine. On modern airplanes, this jet engine is on the wings (e.g. modern Boeings and Airbuses) or at the back (e.g. Fokker); the space shuttle has them at the back, but its take-off and flight is vastly different from traditional airplanes, as its airborne status is aided with the aide of booster rockets. Goldflyer II’s jet engine was positioned at the back of the aircraft, the only position the artefact allowed for such a position. This insertion of the jet engine in that position was a novelty and a risk; the air flow into the engine would be different from the accepted standard. Test flights learned that the plane continued to behave impeccably: take-off and landings were perfect and its flight path was stable. In short: the insertion of an engine at the back of a plane could be perfectly achieved in modern aviation, if they wanted to! BBL have based their speculation on modern capabilities. The scale models that fly are much larger than the artefact itself. The original size of the artefact is difficult to estimate. The team feels that the position of the jet engines determines the amount of people that the plane could accommodate. If the jet engine had been on the fuselage, then there would be room for 3 to 4 people in the cockpit. If the jet engines had been on the bottom of the wings, then it could be the size of a modern aircraft, e.g. a Boeing 737. This would allow a capacity of approx. 100 people. However, the problem with this assumption is that the artefact shows nothing on the wings. Furthermore, there is nothing to indicate that this scale model is indeed of a genuine airplane. In its original size, it may have been made of light wood, and may have been handheld, as a toy for children; a kite. It underlines the basic problem that this artefact is just that: an anomaly, which does allow for speculation, but which in itself can never prove it is indeed a plane. Still, being able to demonstrate that the artefact behaves like an airplane and is more of an airplane than an insect, should give warning to the archaeologists that further study of the artefact is required. Even if “only” the archaeologists might have to re-evaluate their conclusions to the notion that South Americans in 1000-1500 AD had airborne toys would be a major discovery… During the AAS Conference in Florida (August 1997), Belting and Eenboom gave a demonstration of the object in flight. The proof is in the demonstration, and in this case, the proof is there: Goldflyer II behaved impeccably, its landings being a thing of beauty. It is impressive to see enthusiasts take this approach and demonstrate their case – no-one can argue with the flight capabilities of the “insect” as it is. This is what the model looks like, and this is how it flies. But the definitive answer is still in the future. In my opinion, BBL have been able to demonstrate that the artefact is not an insect. At the moment, they have only been able to prove it is an anomaly, an “item” that has all the characteristics of an airplane. But is it one? Or is it something else? Only new evidence, or comparisons with other findings of a similar nature, might give us the final answer. This article appeared in Frontier Magazine 3.6 (1997) and was updated once.