On April 23, 1988 Kanellos Kanellopoulos pedaled the human-powered aircraft 74 miles over the ocean to the island of Santorini

I floated into Greece like a feather. Pared-down by endless months on the road, I had reached a type of physical and spiritual weightlessness. When the winds of good fortune blew, I soared. When they stopped, I plummeted. As I pushed my bicycle from a ferry onto the bustling streets of Patras, I hoped for something different. Something in between. Some imaginary stability, on the shifting winds of circumstance.
I turned my handlebars and set adrift over the quiet twists of pavement along the Aegean sea. I followed a set of lonely railroad tracks that brimmed with wildflowers and spilled their brightly-colored hues into the marble-blue sea.
The air was warm and predictable, and at any point, I could cast my eyes 50 miles across the water, and pull sweet inspiration from a succession of snow studded peaks thundering out of the ocean like Poseidon above the sea.
I pedaled through the Grecian hamlets of Lambiri, Longos, Elenas, and Paralia Porovitsas. As I passed through the towns, the scene was almost always the same.
Greeks milling about their olive orchards, eyeing fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses, or greeting each other with a kind of unbridled enthusiasm. In Elenas, I stepped into a cafe where little old men wearing nautical hats clustered around coffee tables, sipping Iraki, coffee or Ouzo. As I walked in, a low rumble seemed to sway the single white strands of their cigarettes into a collective smokey-haze.

“Yah!” (Hello!) a man hurled at me, then got up, and placed a welcoming hand on my shoulder. With that he let loose with a burst of linguistics that made about as much sense to my ear as the sound of boiling water.
My response was always the same. First a long, dull, opened-mouth stare. Then as a crowd usually gathered, they would wait for my reply as it descended from my brain like the last drop of molasses out of an empty bottle. Some readied their combs for what looked to be an oncoming seizure.

“Y-y-y…Yah Se!” I’d finally reply, sounding every bit like Dustin Hoffman from the film “Rain Man.”
Some would clap, others would laugh. Most would be sent into dizzying fits of hysterics.
One thing for certain was that the Greeks were a closely knit community of kind and loving people.
Continuing the travel, I ran my eyes over 30 square miles of slapped-together buildings occupying nearly every inch of landscape. Then, through the gritty haze, I spotted something perched on an outcropping of rock in the center of town. It was the Acropolis!
I stepped back and my head began to spin. It could not be. “If Aristotle were here …” I mumbled to myself, “He’d be scratching his head right now.”
That night, I learned why this place had been labeled the womb of western civilization. It wasn’t because it had given birth to the great western empires. It was given that name because life here had you hankering to curl up, stick your thumb in your mouth, and quietly assume the fetal position.

But I had not come to Athens for the scenery, I had come to meet a man. However random it sounded, I’d seen his picture on the wall of a bicycle shop in Patras. When I asked who he was, the shop owner looked at me as if I was insane.
“Kanellos Kanellopoulos …?” He said questioningly, as if I’d forgotten the name of Zeus. I shrugged and repeated, “Who is he?” The man pointed to a dilapidated old bike on a stand, and said, “He fly wisziss!” I wasn’t sure quite what that meant, but my instincts got the better of me, and I went to check it out. What I hadn’t known then was that I was about to meet a Greek legend.

I arrived in the Athens neighborhood where he worked a day later. When I stepped off the train, I found a tall, fit, handsome man, looking nowhere near his 49 years of age. He was dressed in cycling clothes and leaning over a high-end road bike. “Kanellos?” I asked as I approached. “Hello,” he smiled, then slipped his hand into mine.
I followed him down the street, across an old neighborhood, then through the doors of a cavernous art studio. It was filled with the musky scent of drying paint and I scanned a room full of easels, drawings, paints and paintbrushes. Hanging on the walls were a variety of paintings depicting Biblical iconography: Jesus, the Apostles, prophets and saints.

As I moved in to study them, they revealed thousands of delicate lines separating a limited range of tones. When I stepped back the lines merged to form glowing images that were nothing short of miraculous. “Are these yours?” I said, not quite believing my eyes. “Mine and my teacher’s,” he said with a simple modesty. “I’ve been drawing since I was a child,” he said.
I asked him how he got started cycling. He told me he’d purchased his first “race bike” at the age 14 by secretly saving his candy money. It weighed over 60 pounds. “I rode it for so long that first day,” he said, “I forgot to eat.”
From that time forward Kanellos rode daily, and it wasn’t long before he began to race. He became a champion on the Greek National Team, and participated in over 500 races. All this primed him for participation in the 1984 Olympic games in L.A. where a bad crash took him out of the race. None of that compared to what came next.
In 1985 Kanellos was selected as one of five cyclists by a group of MIT engineers as part of the Daedalus project. The project was named after the father of the mythical Greek figure Icarus, who built his own set of wings and fell into the ocean after flying too close to the sun. MIT’s Daedalus was a human-powered aircraft built of carbon-fiber, composite and plastic that weighed only 70 pounds, but had the wingspan of a 747.
On April 23, 1988, on the island of Crete, Kanellos climbed inside the Daedalus, and pedaled into aviation history. In a feat of super-human endurance, Kanellos pedaled the human-powered aircraft 74 miles over the ocean to the island of Santorini. Just before he was to land, the tail of aircraft snapped, and he plunged into the water, 100 feet offshore. By the time he was plucked from the ocean, Kanellopoulos had earned his place in the Guinness Book having tripled the former world record. When news of the flight spread, it landed him in headlines around the world. This included a hefty spread in the New York Times, National Geographic, and a segment on the TV Program Nova.
When it came time to leave, I asked Kanellos what had gotten him through that flight. “St. Nicholas,” he said without hesitation. “Who?” I asked again, knowing he couldn’t mean Santa Claus.
“When I was a year old, my father brought me to a small village to kiss the icon of the miraculous St. Nicholas.”
“And what did that have to do with your flight of the Daedalus?” I asked.
He turned toward me, pulled down his glasses and looked me in the eye: “He is the protector of sailors, saints and those that travel over the seas.”
When I left Athens, it was as if Kanellos had handed me my own set of wings.
Rick Gunn Writer- photographer

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