Tuesday, March 2, 2021

When Monkeys Fly


This Post was published originally on 8/19/2020.

For unknown reasons it failed to appear on my Blog page.

If you read it previously, I apologize for my confusion.

 When monkeys fly!

 At a recent author’s event, the moderator asked us to write a statement about ourselves on a 3x5 card to be passed around that seemed so bizarre it would make the reader question if it could be true.

My statement was, “I taught monkeys to fly airplanes.”

The moderator laughed and said my card was too outrageous not to share with the group.

 In the Cold War days, the USSR was the real menace the USA faced.

In 1968, the US Air Force decided it needed remote pilots and tasked the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks AFB, TX, to determine if monkeys could fly a flight simulator.

As a post grad and a budding computer whiz (in those days computers were in clean rooms and used punch-cards for input – ancient times!). I was one of several different disciplines assigned.

I used a hybrid analog/digital computer to design an early “space invader” game with a joystick and a trigger, not unlike today’s modern game joysticks.

 The purpose of the computer “game” was to teach the monkey to fly the simulator in pursuit of targets on the radar screen. In addition to the “pursuit task,” there were 6 buttons/shapes in the simulator’s cockpit, and we trained the monkey to press corresponding buttons when a similar shaped-button lit or blinked. These tasks were like those expected of a human pilot. We demonstrated the rhesus monkey’s ability to learn and simulate cockpit flight performance and trained a dozen to “fly.” This was all hush-hush when I was stationed at Brooks AFB.

When people asked what I did at work, I replied, “Monkey business.”

 Imagine my surprise ten years later, when Hollywood released the entire Hush-Hush program as a movie called “Project X” with teen-aged Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt in lead roles.

The first two-thirds of the film portrayed the USAF project accurately, but the movie’s ending is pure Hollywood, where the chimpanzees fly away in a Piper Cub to land in the Everglades and stroll, hand-in-hand, into the tropical wetlands to live Happily Ever After.

 My enlistment in the USAF ended before the project reached its conclusion. After my service, I built a career on conducting clinical and medical research directed to the betterment of human life without using animals for research subjects.

 I still laugh today when I hear people say, “When pigs fly.”

I think why not, monkeys can fly.

 Thanks for riding along,

Frank Kelso

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