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Sunday 10 July 2016

Out-of-place Pterodactyl

With the Farnborough airshow coming up next week, I thought it would be a good opportunity to dig out this little curiosity. It’s the coat-of-arms of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, which occupied the Farnborough airfield site for more than 70 years. Where you might expect an eagle to be sitting on top of it, instead there’s an extinct flying reptile from the Jurassic period – a pterodactyl!

I’ve always wondered about the reasoning behind the pterodactyl symbolism. As far as I can tell it really is a pterodactyl, not the later and much more impressive pteranodon of the Cretaceous period. A pteranodon was a gigantic creature, almost the size of a small aircraft, and might indeed make a good mascot for an aeronautical research establishment. But a pterodactyl was only about the size of a seagull, which isn’t going to impress anyone (except for Peter Harriman, of course).

The Latin inscription at the bottom reads ALIS APTA SCIENTIA, which according to Google Translate means “wings suitable for science”. So maybe a pterodactyl was seen as somehow “more scientific” than an eagle? That makes sense, I suppose, since everything we know about pterodactyls comes from the science of palaeontology.

A Google search didn’t shed any more light on the subject, although I did find an auction item with the following description: “A large armorial crest formerly on the South Gate at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, circa 1930s – 1950s, of heavy cast aluminium with intaglio relief design incorporating a pterodactyl surmounting a helmet and shield motif with foliate border and motto inscribed Alis Apta Scientia”.

During the First World War, the government-owned Royal Aircraft Factory designed and built a number of aircraft types – the best known being the SE5a fighter. However, private companies complained it was unfair to make them compete for government contracts against the government itself, so in 1918 the Royal Aircraft Factory became the Royal Aircraft Establishment – and refocused its attention on research rather than production. Nevertheless, it still played an important role in the development of the jet engine, the Concorde supersonic airliner and Britain’s one and only space launcher, Black Arrow. In 1988 it briefly and rather pointlessly changed its name to the Royal Aerospace Establishment, before merging into the Defence Research Agency three years later.


Unknown said...

Since the old fashioned view of a pterydactyl was of a collection of bones with rubbery or leathery skin stretched over them, perhaps this resemblance to the early aircraft - themselves "skin" stretched over wooden or aluminium bones etc. - is the source of the armorial depiction?

Andrew May said...

Thanks for the interesting suggestion. I hadn't thought of that, but it certainly seems possible.

Michael said...

"Why a duck?" - Chico Marx

Anonymous said...

There's a great anecdote from David Attenborough about the time he was filming a model pteranodon for a TV programme. Later that day he went to a party and the hostess asked him what he'd been doing lately. "I've been filming a pteranodon" said Attenborough. The hostess replied "Oh, they're so lovely aren't they".

Andrew May said...

Thanks Michael - I didn't get the reference at first, but I was quickly put straight by Wikipedia which has a whole article on Why A duck?

... and that really is a great anecdote, Colin!