A Flight Simulator Odyssey

by Charles Gulick

Stonehenge: Just Passing Through

Chart: Southern UK
En Route Coordinates:
   Aircraft: N18570, EI3245
   Tower: --
   Aircraft: 86
   Tower: --
Heading: 045
Time: Daylight

Human beings have always been intrigued by massive and immutable things from antiquity, particularly when they are cloaked in mystery. Among such oddities are the giant chalk figures we viewed earlier, the staring stone faces of Easter Island, the vast "landing strips of the gods" markings on the Nazca Plain in Peru, and the thousands of megalithic monuments found in western Europe, the Mediterranean, India, and numerous Asian countries. Among such monuments, the one ahead of you--Stonehenge on England's Salisbury Plain--is probably the most mysterious as well as the most famous.

A little terminology may be helpful. Megalith is from the Greek for "big stone." When a tall megalith is set upright on the earth like a pillar, it's called a menhir, from a Celtic dialect meaning "long stone." A group of menhirs arranged in a circle is called a cromlech, and a group arranged to serve as a tomb, of any size or shape, is called a dolmen. Perhaps the simplest of dolmens is a stone slab resting on two menhirs, forming an arch or trilithon.

The Stonehenge site dates from the second or third millennium B.C., and comprises four circles of stones surrounded by a ditch and embankments. The ditch is 300 feet in diameter.

According to the most recent archaeological findings, Stonehenge was created in three phases over a span of many centuries, and each phase involved transformations of the earlier work. The final phase, or Stonehenge III, consisted of (from the inside out) an Altar Stone at the center of the circle; a horseshoe-shaped arrangement of bluish stones (which geologists believe could only have come from quarries in south Wales, approximately 150 miles from here); a larger horseshoe of giant trilithons (both horseshoe shapes have their open ends facing northeast); a circle of the bluish stones (larger ones this time); a giant circle of contiguous trilithons; three rings of deep, wide holes; and four Station Stones (which form a rectangle and may have been used for astronomical sightings). Outside the circle is the massive, unhewn, 16-foot menhir called the Heel Stone.

Some of the individual stones of Stonehenge weigh more than 50 tons. So if, as is believed, the site was created by the inhabitants of Salisbury Plain, how did they manage to quarry and transport such stones, and erect this mighty monument, in those ancient times? The stones in most cases are carefully dressed and joined, with uprights tapering and sometimes convexly curved, so Stonehenge is an architectural phenomenon.

And not only how did the Salisbury folk do all this, but why? Was it a tomb, and if so for whom? Or was it an astronomical observatory? There is apparently little doubt that it was oriented according to the sun and moon. The Station Stones, used with other alignment stones, provided sightlines to points of sunrise and moonrise in midsummer and midwinter. Other of the megaliths may have been used with the rings of holes to predict eclipses (although this is the most controversial hypothesis of all). Or are the astronomical phenomena of Stonehenge purely coincidence?

Experts of one sort and another have argued Stonehenge for centuries. We may safely assume that far more is unknown about it than is known.

Although you are nominally in flight toward the Stonehenge site, you are virtually (perhaps literally) on the ground. I put you at this altitude so you could see the monument (if monument it is) silhouetted against the sky.

So why didn't I position you at a standstill right at the site? Because in the simulation, Stonehenge (as you've discovered if you've observed it closeup) is just outlines. No megaliths. Insubstantial as air. Your view while still paused, and for the first second or so of your flight, is the optimum view.

As you get closer, the illusion will evanesce. Further, you'll find you can fly right through Stonehenge without knocking over anything, and with no damage to your plane or yourself--as if, one might say, you are some kind of spirit.

Table of Contents | Previous Section | Next Section