Dave Barry

Flying Fish

(This Dave Barry column was originally published December 9, 1990.)

We certainly do not wish to cause widespread panic, but we are hereby warning the public to be on the lookout for falling trout.

We base this warning on an alarming article from The Bangor Daily News, sent in by alert reader Jane Heart, headlined Torpedo Approach Used To Stock Lakes With Trout. According to the article, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries is restocking lakes by dropping trout from airplanes. A hatchery official notes that the trout, which weigh about a pound each, drop from 100 to 150 feet "like hundreds of little torpedoes."

This article should cause extreme concern on the part of anyone who is familiar with gravity, which was discovered in 1684 by Sir Isaac Newton, who was sitting under a tree when an apple landed on his head, killing him instantly. A one-pound trout would be even worse. According to our calculations, if you dropped the trout from 150 feet, it would reach a speed of . . . let's see, 150 feet times 32 feet per second, at two pints to the liter, minus the radius of the hypotenuse, comes to . . . a high rate of speed. Anybody who has ever seen a photograph showing the kind of damage that a trout traveling that fast can inflict on the human skull knows that such photographs are very valuable. I paid $20 for mine.

And yet here we see Maine, which we usually think of as a quiet, responsible state known primarily for sleet, deliberately causing potentially lethal fish to hurtle at high velocities toward the Earth, residence of many members of the public.

Oh, I realize the program is not designed to harm the public. But even highly trained pilots are not perfect. Consider the three pilots who were recently convicted of flying drunk on a commercial flight, during which they aroused suspicion by instructing the passengers to fasten their seat belts because of, "snakes in the engine." I am not accusing the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries of using drunk pilots, but if one of them did have a few, and happened to fly over, say, a Shriners convention while carrying a full load of trout, the temptation to let those babies go would be irresistible. To us, anyway.

What is especially alarming is that this is not the first time that government agencies have dropped potentially lethal creatures from planes. An even scarier example is discussed in an article in the October 1990 issue of Air Force magazine, which was alertly sent to us by John Breen. The article, by C.V. Glines, is entitled The Bat Bombers, and we urge you to read the whole thing yourself, because otherwise you are not going to believe us.

In brief, here's what the article says:

In December 1941, shortly after Pearl Harbor, a Pennsylvania dental surgeon named Lytle S. Adams thought of a way that the United States could fight back against Japan. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has undergone dental surgery that the idea he came up with was: attaching incendiary bombs to bats and dropping them out of airplanes. The idea was that the bats would fly into enemy buildings, and the bombs would go off and start fires, and Japan would surrender.

So Dr. Adams sent his idea to the White House, which laughed so hard that it got a stomachache.

No! That's what you'd expect to happen, but instead the White House sent the idea to the U.S. Army, which, being the U.S. Army, launched a nationwide research effort to determine the best kind of bat to attach a bomb to. By 1943 the research team had decided on the free-tailed bat, which "could fly fairly well with a one-ounce bomb." Thousands of these bats were collected and -- remember, we are not making any of this up -- placed in ice-cube trays, which were then refrigerated to force the bats to hibernate so bombs could be attached to them. On May 23, 1943, a day that every school child should be forced to memorize, five groups of test bats, equipped with dummy bombs, were dropped from a B-25 bomber flying at 5,000 feet. Here, in the dramatic words of the article, is what happened next:

"Most of the bats, not fully recovered from hibernation, did not fly and died on impact."

Researchers continued to have problems with bats failing to show the "can-do" attitude you want in your night-flying combat mammal. Also there was an incident wherein "some bats escaped with live incendiaries aboard and set fire to a hangar and a general's car."

At this point the Army, possibly sensing that the project was a disaster, turned it over to the Navy. Really. "In October 1943, the Navy leased four caves in Texas and assigned Marines to guard them, " states the article. The last thing you want, in wartime, is for enemy agents to get hold of your bats.

The bat project was finally canceled in 1944, having cost around $2 million, which is a bargain when you consider what we pay for entertainment today.

But our point is, the government has a track record of dropping animals out of airplanes, and there is no reason to believe that this has stopped. Once the government gets hold of a truly bad idea, it tends to cling to it. For all we know, the Defense Department is testing bigger animals, capable of carrying heavier payloads. We could have a situation where, because of an unexpected wind shift, thousands of semi-frozen, parachute-wearing musk oxen come drifting down into a major population center and start lumbering confusedly around with high explosives on their backs. We definitely should have some kind of contingency plan for stopping them. Our best weapon is probably trout.

(c) Dave Barry

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