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Step Right Up for More Obituaries: The Fly-Powered Airplane and the Human Blockhead

- January 17, 2008

Continuing the funereal theme of a couple of recent “Monkey Cage” posts — one a frivolous one by me about the death of Eddie Miller, “The World’s Greatest Trencherman,” and the other a somber one by John about the passing of psychologist William McGuire, I submit for your consideration two of my all-time favorite obituaries. The first one I can only excerpt because I can’t get a workable link to it from the archive of the Washington Post, where it appeared under Adam Bernstein’s byline on August 30, 2001. The second one, written by Douglas Martin, appeared in the New York Times, November 18, 2001.

What makes these two obituaries stand out for me is the combination of the inventiveness and the sheer weirdness of the accomplishments chronicled therein. Plus these stories are written so very well.

In any event, here, first, are excerpts from Adam Bernstein’s obituary of Frank V. Ehling:

bq. Frank V. Ehling, who turned a childhood hobby of flying model airpolanes into a full-time career, died Aug. 21 at his home in Laurel of complications from a stroke a decade ago.

bq. Mr. Ehling’s love of flight extended to designing an innovative model plane for children and selling exotic birds.

bq. From 1960 to 1982, he was technical director of the Academy of Model Aeronautics.

bq. …Some of Mr. Ehling’s handiwork is also on display at the National Air and Space Museum. He built what is reported to be the smallest flying models at the museum, two fly-powered balsa-and-tissue airplanes with a three-inch wingspan. The planes’ engines are houseflies attached to the wings with glue.

bq. …to impress each ‘engine’ into service, Mr. Ehling honed an effective technique involving cupping a fly with his hands and then hurling it to the ground to knock it unconscious. He would then dab glue on its rear end, carefully avoiding its delicate wings, and attach the fly to the plane. He also was known to capture the fly, stick it in the freezer and glue it to the wood while it was immobile from the cold.

bq. Either way — as the fly gained consciousness or returned to room temperature — the winged insect would lift the model plan into the air.

And here is Douglas Martin’s obituary of Melvin Burkhart, aka “The Human Blockhead.”