There lives in this small Northern California university town a man who is perhaps even more of a dreamer than the fictional Birdy. Ray Bright, 43, believes that men and women can fly without the aid of feathered wings or aircraft.
Yet unlike Birdy in the movie of the same name, who ended up in a mental institution because he thought he could fly, Bright is not locked up. For 17 years he's been coach of the men's gymnastics team at California State University at Chico, where he has earned a reputation as a winner. Among many honors, his team has produced more than 40 NCAA all-America gymnasts.
Ever since 1981, when he devised a system by which humans can orient themselves in three dimensions, he's been teaching athletes, college students and others from the community that they, too, can fly. He calls it bioflight.
Any time a person is free of gravity for a moment -- whether at the height of a jump shot in basketball or bumping around a space shuttle -- that person is flying, Bright argues.
"The first time a person left a vehicle in space, traveling 17,000 miles an hour around the planet, they called it a space walk. That's ridiculous," Bright said. "If that's not flying, then no bird, no airplane can fly."
The coach claims that by knowing how exploit those times in which the body is momentarily airborne during sport, an athlete can maximize his performance. For instance, Bright observed this of Mary Decker Slaney when she tripped during the 3,000-meter women's final at the 1984 Olympics: "She kept a 1 G (gravity as it is experienced on Earth) attitude and plowed herself into the ground. She could have rolled and popped right back up (if she had some of what Bright calls "air sense") and maybe still have won the race. But she went out of her normal range of perception and was lost."
Bright's dream goes beyond improving the performance of earthbound competitors, however. His goal is to teach people how to live and work in space without the disorientation and nausea that often result when their normal reference points are scrambled.
Bright said there have been reports that spatially confused astronauts have bumped switches with their feet and knocked cameras and food containers out of place. Astronauts are sometimes unable to accurately read instrument panels when their bodies are floating free, he said.
And space sickness -- headaches, weakness and vomiting -- strikes 50 percent of travelers in space, according to James Vanderploeg, director of the Space Biomedical Research Institute of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "Motion sickness in space remains a medical problem for the space program. We don't have an official solution yet," he said.
"One of the things we are curious about is whether the body orientation of gymnasts would in some way alter their susceptibility to motion sickness in different environments," Vanderploeg added. A group of gymnasts was tested recently in Houston, he said. The results of those tests, not yet available, could confirm or disprove Bright's theory that people with heightened kinesthetic awareness are resistant to space sickness.
Bright has addressed a team of shuttle engineers at Boeing Aerospace in Seattle, and he has talked about bioflight with astronauts Gerald Carr (commander of Skylab 3) and Byron Lichtenberg, a biomedical engineer who went up in Spacelab in 1983.
Ray Bright began a recent demonstration of bioflight on the Chico campus by asking individuals in the audience: "Do you think you can fly?"
He picked up an 8-year-old girl by an ankle and a wrist and spun her around until the centrifugal force lifted her body up. He gently set her down again beside her father and said, "There's one pilot."
Bright wants people to understand that most of them have been flying all their lives. "Flight just really means that you're not attached to an axis," he explained. "Anytime you're attached to something, your freedom is restricted.
"I have been flying for about 40 years now," Bright added. When he was 3, his aunt gave him 10 cents for each cartwheel he completed. Later, he decided to go to college (University of Wisconsin at La Crosse) because he knew there were trampolines there, and he'd have more opportunities to fly as he had as a child turning cartwheels.
"When I started doing the trampoline, I realized that you stop when you're up there (at the height of the jump), and you can get a lot done when you're up there," Bright said. The secret of bioflight, he explained, is to learn to take advantage of those instants of freedom.
His flying philosophy, which stresses utilizing the moment, is influenced by Zen and eastern teachings, as well as by a prophetic dream he once had in which it became clear to him that space -- and not Earth -- was his true home, he said.
To teach people how to maximize their airborne moments, Bright learned to fly a plane and to skydive. He borrowed the principles of pitch, yaw and roll from aviation.
In teaching that the human body also pitches, yaws and rolls, he assigns three axes to the body; each is color-coded to make it easier for people to remember the system when their bodies are upside down and sideways. The blue axis allows a person to roll left and right. The yellow axis affords the hand-over-foot motion the body makes during a cartwheel. And the red axis allows the lateral movement a lineman might make on a football field.
Though difficult to grasp when described verbally, the axis concept quickly took hold as students experimented with the pitch, yaw and roll of their own bodies.
After learning the basics of bioflight in the university gym using props such as trampolines and overhead harnesses, some of Bright's students went to Las Vegas to try the principles they learned in the Flyaway chamber, a device in which humans can experience something akin to flight as they are suspended on a wind generated by an 800-horsepower engine.
One student who "flew" in the chamber said that since learning bioflight (it means "the flight of life"), he now often thinks about which axis he's moving on while going about routine activities on campus, or when he's at work in a fast-food restaurant. "It's important to hear that flying is something we can all do," said 25-year-old Scott Wilson. "This seems to be the age for it. We're slowly learning how to move in other dimensions."