The pterodactyl is back. At least, a man-made model of the flying reptile, which has been gone from earth for 65 million years, is flying.
And it's headed for the Mall.
Engineers built the $500,000 model, about half the size of the original, using a design based on Texas fossils. The thing moves its wings and soars.
It is to be the feature creature in an upcoming Smithsonian film, "On the Wing," about natural and mechanical flight. In 1984, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum hired Paul MacCready, an innovator in aerodynamics, to build the flying model. MacCready's Gossamer Albatross, a pedal-powered plane, flew across the English Channel in 1979.
The mechanical pterodactyl (the P is silent) is modeled after the largest flying animal in the planet's history, Quetzalcoatlus northropi, whose fossils were found in Texas in 1972. Varieties of the pterodactyl lived for about 145 million years before disappearing about 65 million years ago, paleontologists believe.
In January, "On the Wing" cameras filmed the contraption in flight in Death Valley, Calif.
"We needed a setting similar to landscapes 65 million years ago," said museum spokeswoman Rita Cipalla. Cipalla refers to the machine as QN and says promotional items ranging from pop-out books to T-shirts are planned.
The 44-pound, battery-powered QN is covered with a zip-off fur, and its mechanism is governed by an on-board computer. Sensors in its moving head detect changing wind currents and relay the information to the computer, which orders corrections that keep the contraption aloft.
But while the technology comes from the space age, the method of propulsion does not.
"It is actually flapping itself along" with its wings, which span 18 feet, Cipalla said.
After a few minutes of ascents, dips and turns, the pterodactyl is brought in for a landing by a ground controller who radios commands to the airborne computer, she said.
Sometime in May, the reptile will flap and swoop over the Mall for interested mortals, then will rest its wings in the Air and Space Museum. And in the movie that premieres June 20, viewers can watch the hybrid offspring of disparate parents: paleontology, through which man reads the autobiography of earth, and aerodynamics, by which he rises above it.