Flying Too Close to the Sun

The legend of Icarus’ daring escape from his imprisonment in Crete and his subsequent drowning in the Icarian Sea has inspired countless debates on what went wrong on that tragic day more than two thousand years ago.

As the story goes, Icarus and his father, Daedalus, a great Athenian craftsman and inventor, were imprisoned by King Minos of Crete, ironically, in Daedalus’ very own masterpiece – the Labyrinth. Knowing that the land and sea were impassable, Daedalus devised a plan to escape by air. With Icarus’ help, Daedalus constructed a pair of bird-like wings by gluing together feathers with wax.

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By all accounts, the flight began flawlessly. Icarus soared into the sky, leaving behind his earthly confinement in a moment of heavenly exhilaration. But as he approached too close to the sun, the heat melted the wax and his wings of feathers became undone. Our tragic hero fell into the sea to his death.

“Let this be a warning against excessive ambition!” exclaimed many old and wise figures over the years. “What goes up will surely come down,” lamented those glass-half-empty philosophers.

Now may be the time to inject us engineers’ perspectives into this age old discussion.

The aerodynamic performance of the wings was obviously a resounding success, propelling Icarus to “soar into the sky”. The flight control was apparently intuitive and stress free, as Icarus was able to fully enjoy the flight to the extent of ecstasy. The manufacturing was especially the work of a genius, considering the rather limited supply chain and the prying eyes of the prison guards.

But our master craftsman, in his yearning for freedom, overlooked an essential aspect of his engineering marvel – Thermal Management.

With only a little more attention, Daedalus could have made his mythical wings far more heat resistant. He likely had several options at his disposal, all of which were abundantly available in that region at that time, even for a maximum security prison like the Labyrinth. Remember how there was no mentioning of any burn damage on Icarus? This suggests that he must have died of either impact or drowning and that the temperatures of his wing surfaces and exposed skin could not have been more than the safe touch temperature of 140°F. Daedalus could have added small amounts of animal fats into the wax to raise its melting point to as high as 150°F, significantly boosting the safety margin of the feathery wings. Similarly, Daedalus could have added a thin layer of cloth, which would act as a shielding blanket against the sun’s rays.

It is often said that thermal management is a last thought, or worse yet, an afterthought, on the minds of many engineers. The tale of Icarus hopefully has taught us that considering thermal management early in the design cycle would save money, time, and in some cases, lives.