Learning to fly among the Cretans

They said he couldn’t do it; they said he was crazy, but two years ago Rory MacClean set out to imitate Icarus. As a way of expunging the grief of his mother’s death, and «ready for lightness,» MacClean and his wife temporarily relocated to the land of man’s first legendary flight – to repeat it, on more modern terms. Settling in the small Cretan village of Anissari, armed with a trove of do-it-yourself small airplane construction books, and enlisting the help of locals and some local experts, MacClean, an amateur airplane buff who’d never actually flown, constructed a single-seater 32-ft wingspan light aircraft – a Woodhopper – from scratch… and wrote a book about it. «Falling for Icarus: A Journey among the Cretans» (Penguin/Viking 2004) is MacClean’s anecdote-filled record of the project and the approximate year it took to do it. It is a frequently comic travelogue of choosing a design, finding materials – «one length of good Douglas fir, seven sheets of polystyrene, cable, glue, aluminum tubing, hinges and dress-lining fabric, bicycle wheels and a bleach bottle petrol tank» – as well as a building large enough to serve as a hangar, not to mention mitigating the skepticism of the locals, or – often worse – dealing diplomatically with their dubious assistance. «’So you’re the idiot building the aeroplane,’ (one local) said to me, waiting for his glass to be refilled… ‘That’s my plan.’ «He laughed… ‘Listen to me,’ he said, ‘when you crash don’t hit anyone. Maybe they’ll soften your fall but then you will forever have enemies on Crete.’» But the majority, deciding MacClean must be crazy, enthusiastically throw their weight and considerable contacts behind the project. They embrace the couple, titillated at having a crazy «pilotos» in their midst, and MacClean’s rendering of the Cretan way of doing things, the ruggedness of land and character, the gossip, traditions and ironies, with a smattering of Cretan history and the island’s legends, make this a highly entertaining read in the style of Bill Bryson, Colin Thubron – who lent a blurb to the jacket – and even Gerald Durrell. From the men at the kafeneion, who took up a collection to find an engine, to the assistant who’s more focused on nightlife than on showing up, and the hermit with a guest book, the book is peppered with vignette after vignette, all propelled forward by the big question on everyone’s lips: «But will it fly?» MacClean also presents a history of early aviation and the various contraptions invented by man to get himself off the ground. But it is the author’s sense of the ancient merging of man and myth, the melding of fact with fiction to create fable that makes the imagination take flight, as well as MacClean’s humility in it all. Because, had he not been adventurous and vulnerable, he never would have gotten off the metaphorical runway. «On that first blustery morning in the ruins, the villagers had understood my need and, anchored in their own culture, had fed me a myth in order to lead me to find redemption. Their myths taught that there was order in the universe, that life had meaning, that we weren’t airy spirits but creatures of narrative, of earth and time.» To find out if he flew, one has to read the book.