Leonardo sketches
12 min read

“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

This Leonardo da Vinci quote is everywhere — aviation books, magazines, websites, Instagram posts, coffee mugs, tee shirts, several science textbooks and some Smithsonian publications. It’s been repeated by the Washington Post newspaper, the Italian ambassador to the United States, and an executive director of The Leonardo museum. I saw it last year in big painted letters on the wall of a California flight school. It’s timeless emotion from a renaissance master of art and science. A flying quotation from maybe the most diversely talented genius ever to have lived, penned 400 years before the Wright Brothers flew. It’s evocatively magical and achingly relatable.

Yet Leonardo da Vinci never said it; and it’s nowhere close to 500 years old.

Yep, it’s fakey fake! Like, totally busted. Now, it’s still a great line. Maybe the best encapsulation of what pilots feel like when we’re stuck on the ground. As I write this during the coronavirus lockdown my eyes are turned skyward, longing to return. But how did this distinctive line come to be credited to the famous Italian polymath with a fascination for flight? And who actually did write it?

I started questioning the quotation’s authenticity over twenty years ago, while trying to nail down the details for a book I was editing. It was slow sledding. Several big aviation books had the line, but none of them cited a reference. None. I soon noticed it never has a date or even a year ascribed to it. This was back when university library catalogs were giant physical card files, Google didn’t exist, and you dialed into the internet on Netscape.

Since I don’t speak Italian, flipping through photos of Leonardo’s original notes didn’t get me anywhere. Reading English translations of his words didn’t uncover the phrase. Leonardo didn’t write books as such, but rather had observational and inspirational notebooks that he wrote in mirror-image cursive with shorthand codes and extensive sketches. There are in total about 13,000 of these pages, originally loose papers of different types and sizes.

Leonardo sketches

Leonardo wrote about birds and flying, but not that famous quote.

Leonardo certainly was obsessed with birds and flying machines, drawing and writing a lot about them over his entire lifetime. He believed a bird flew into his crib as a baby. He swam underwater to study how fish fins worked compared to bird wings. His aerodynamic ideas foreshadow Newton, Galileo, and Bernoulli. He was the first to draw flow fields. Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says Leonardo was “the ultimate genius,” and that “as scientists and explorers we always looked to him as the model.”

One of his famous notebooks, the Codex on the Flight of Birds, is devoted entirely to flight. It was written at the same time (1505-1506) he was painting the Mona Lisa. It contains aerodynamic understandings not equalled for hundreds of years. Elachi believes this codex is “probably the most important document about flight” on Earth. In 2012, a scanned copy of it flew much further, landing on Mars attached to the Curiosity rover. While close inspection of the Codex on the Flight of Birds reveals it was written over old notes, and contains a grocery list as well as other personal notes, our famous line is not there.

Peter Jakab, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, says Leonardo wrote 35,000 words and drew 500 stretches on flying. His last notebook, Manuscript E (circa 1515), has advanced studies of gliding flight and clearly shows how migrating birds use the wind for long range soaring. By then I think Leonardo had given up on mechanical human-powered flight, after a lifetime of never actually making it into the air in any machine. This disconnect from actually “tasting flight” is part of the magic of the quote, that the great master could voice our primal aerial passion before anybody could have experienced it. The general acceptance seems to be that the extraordinary intellect that envisioned so many mechanical possibilities, and could paint so many human emotions, conjured in his mind what flight would feel like, what lingering sweet taste it would leave in our psyche.

The search was frustrating. What if the quote was never in his notebooks? Maybe he wrote it in a letter to someone else? Or maybe was it a bad translation? Or an extrapolation? Or a misunderstanding? But surely not, as the line was quoted so definitively, so often. The only variations seem to be at the start. Sometimes it’s, “For once you have tasted…” other times it’s, “When once you have tasted…” The body of the quotation is remarkably consistent for something supposedly 500 years old, originally written in Italian or Leonardo’s poor Latin.

I found nothing. Neither did some nice folks I talked with at National Geographic magazine years ago, who had contacted one of the world’s leading Leonardo authorities in Italy as part of a long research project, and were told flat out that he did not write it. They were quite confident it was folklore fiction, and privately they sounded a little smug that a Smithsonian publication had recently printed it. I believed them, but how do you prove a negative? And who originally did pen the line?

The question quietly bugged me for years. The 2007 book Leonardo on Flight by Domenico Laurenza never mentions the line. A whole chapter of the 2008 book Leonardo’s Legacy by science writer Stefan Klein is devoted to da Vinci’s dream of mechanical flight, yet it also never mentions the line. Rather, the book concludes “after thirty years of tireless work, Leonardo’s dream of flying had reverted to what it was in the first days of his research—a flight of the imagination.” And the amazing 2017 biography Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, drawing on the latest research, didn’t include it anywhere in its over 600 pages. So every time I saw the quote on a tee shirt or Twitter it was a poke to a bit of my brain that knew something wasn’t right, that something was unfinished.

Well, finally the mystery has been solved, thanks to several patient detectives connected via the internet, using the vast search tools of Google Books and other electronic storehouses. People reached out to book authors and asked where ideas and narrative came from, while others sat through dreadful old copies of films. It all came together in the nerdy discussion page of the Wikiquote entry for Leonardo de Vinci, and now we can reveal the author was… drum roll please…

John Hermes Secondari. An American TV writer. In 1965.

John Secondari

John Secondari discussing rockets with Wernher von Braun.

It seemed all a bit underwhelming. A TV writer? But a little more research finds a pretty cool cat. He commanded a tank company in combat during World War II. He wrote romantic novels. An uncredited Frank Sinatra sang “his” song that won an Oscar. The New York Times called Secondari “a dominant figure in the field of the television documentary” in their February 1975 obituary. He had won three Peabody Awards and more than 20 Emmys during a career making quality documentaries. And while John was mostly found behind the camera, there’s pictures of him from a 1958 Walt Disney Television show—smoking a cigarette and discussing rocketry with Wernher von Braun. And he had deep ties to Italy.

Born in Rome in 1919, at five years old Secondari sailed with his mother to Ellis Island for a life in the United States. After getting a masters degree in journalism from Columbia University, he worked as a correspondent for The United Press and CBS News. In 1941 he joined the Army and saw combat in Europe. After the war he rejoined CBS and was head of their Rome bureau. John also wrote several novels. The first one published drew on his knowledge and love of Rome with a title referencing the famous Trevi fountain—Coins in the Fountain. The book was turned into the 1954 movie Three Coins in the Fountain. It won two Oscars: best cinematography and best song. The eponymous song was sung by Frank Sinatra.

At the start of the 1960s Secondari organized ABC-TV’s first documentary unit and went on to produce over 80 documentaries, covering serious subjects with award-winning substance. The Museum of Broadcast Communications’ Encyclopedia of Television (2nd edition, 2013) says Secondari “forged a coherent house style that featured a heavy emphasis on visualization and dramatic voiceover narration.” One of his projects was a series called The Saga of Western Man, highlighting key historical events that drove civilization forward. It was nominated for five Primetime Emmy awards. The New York Times said that to make the past come alive Secondari used “sound effects and animated the screen by treating the camera lens as if it were the eye of an actual witness to the event—scanning , zooming or resting on shadows, furniture, silhouettes, ships and other objects. As much as possible he restricted the acting to off-screen voices, using historically authentic dialogue.”

One of the episodes of The Saga of Western Man was “I, Leonardo Da Vinci.” The credits state it was written, produced and narrated by John H. Secondari, with “the voice of Leonardo da Vinci” played by Fredric March. Its copyright date is 1965 and it was released in 1966 by American Broadcasting. At 16 minutes and 21 seconds into the second reel, after the off-screen Leonardo narration urges people to build his flying machines, claiming after any crash “the hurts will be slight,” over gentle visuals of a wheat field panning up into a clear blue sky, the voice says:

And once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you would return.

That’s it. The first recorded version of what became the quote. There is nothing similar in any of the millions of pre-1965 documents digitized by Google or other archivers. It was written by John H. Secondari, channeling the real ideas and passions of Leonardo as part of a TV documentary. This was a serious project, with Professor Carlo Pedretti of the University of California as the consultant historian, but it did present conjectural concentrations of Leonardo’s ideas. Condensing 13,000 pages of notes into a one hour show is hard. Clearly it’s a great line, compelling, ethereal—even if it’s closer in time to Leonardo DiCaprio than Leonardo da Vinci.

As an additional fact check, I talked with Marissa De Simone Day, Director of Exhibits and Learning at The Leonardo Museum of Creativity and Innovation in Salt Lake City, Utah. She was part of the creation of their outstanding Flight exhibit. If anyone should know about the line, it’s her. She stated, “as far as we know, the quote originated in the script of an educational film by John Secondari which is titled I, Leonardo da Vinci. The script is inspired by Leonardo’s notes in his codexes and narrated as though by Leonardo.”

This spoken line is not exactly as we’ve seen it repeated time after time over the last few decades. It lacks the “forever” and the ending is missing the “always long.” Those parts came to be added in pieces later. The first time the line appeared in print was ten years later, in the May 1975 edition of Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine. It was quoted as a Leonardo epigraph in The Storms of Windhaven, a science fiction story by George R. R. Martin (yes, that’s Mr. Game of Thrones) and Lisa Tuttle:

For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward; for there you have been, and there you long to return.

Now we have the “long to return.” But where did they get the line? A fantastical lost da Vinci codex discovered in George R. R. Martin’s attic? A personal letter from Leonardo delivered through a vortex time portal? Sadly not. Seems the communication was more down to Earth. According to Lisa Tuttle it was the editor of Analog, Ben Bova, who suggested it. An email to Ben revealed that he heard it in a documentary about Leonardo.

It was perfect for the start of a story of human space voyagers who crash-landed on a planet and constructed mechanically simple gliding machines from their wrecked spaceship. The presented-as-historical-fact quotation was read and spread by late seventies hang glider pilots and sky divers. Five years later, a newspaper story in the The Herald Statesman had the compelling headline Hang Glider Died “With His Eyes Turned Skyward.” By the 1980s the power of the line had caught the imagination of the wider aviation world. And then it started being repeated in books and magazines.

Which is when I first saw it. I joined the echoing chorus by adding it to my lists of aviation quotes. Now it’s almost everywhere. It’s easy to understand why. The line perfectly describes a human emotion about our favorite obsession. It sounds just like what we think Leonardo sounded like. And fact checking the line used to be nearly impossible. But now we have better tools. It might take a while for the quote’s attribution to be changed, considering how common it’s become. I heard it as part of a theme park ride. It even made it to page 135 of the 2008 National Geographic book Leonardo’s Universe: The Renaissance World of Leonardo Da Vinci. Emails to the authors were unanswered.

It’s my speculation that the enigmatic Mona Lisa smile is Leonardo’s reaction to his most famous flying quote turning out to have been penned by a ghostwriter centuries after his death. The great man did enjoy funny prophecy-riddles. His quote that “winged creatures will support people with their feathers” actually refers not to flying machines, but rather “the feathers used to stuff mattresses.” His line “feathers shall raise men even as they do birds, towards heaven” is finished by “that is by letters written with their quills.”

While we have to let his most repeated quote go, thankfully there are many well researched, 100% authentic quotations that match his amazing aerodynamic sketches. Like this one from the Codex Atlanticus:

A bird is an instrument working according to mathematical law, and it is in the capacity of man to reproduce such an instrument. A man with wings large enough and duly attached might learn to overcome the resistance of the air and raise himself upon it.

Dave English
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35 replies
  1. Ken Flaton
    Ken Flaton says:

    Finally! This has been a pet peeve of mine for more than a decade. In more cantankerous moods, I’ve contacted numerous posters of the mal-attributed quote, asking them to remove the attribution until they can prove it, sometimes even with success. I tracked down the Secondari explanation about year ago, found it satisfying. VERY glad to see it published here with all the trimmings. Thank you, Dave!

  2. Dave English
    Dave English says:

    Thanks for your kind words Ken. The talk page of da Vinci‘s Wikiquote entry was vital to making many of the connections, but it’s not best for getting the word out.


  3. Kim Hunter
    Kim Hunter says:

    This was a very fine piece of research.

    Thank you for the details about John Secondari – a genuine renaissance man who, with his contemporaries, shaped American culture during the 1950s and ’60s.

    • Dave English
      Dave English says:

      Very interesting! Had not heard of this movie before. Not on any streaming services, so now wait for a used physical DVD to arrive in the mail.

      Thanks Tom for sharing a great looking idea.

  4. Cam Martin
    Cam Martin says:

    Thank you for this remarkable story, and especially for tracing out all the twists and turns with suchunmatched tenacity. Your collections of great aviation quotes have long enriched our world. Ensuring their accuracy is above and beyond the call… Hope to see you in Oshkosh again.


    • Dave English
      Dave English says:

      Thanks for your kind words Cam. Slowly working on researching the aviation quotes using the amazing tools available online now. And presenting them in an easy to read format. In uncovering stories and ideas, and meeting interesting people, they are gift that keeps giving.

      After living in Phoenix for 15 years, moved this year to Massachusetts, kids are getting a little older, and hope to fly gliders a lot more. Joined a glider club and excited about starting XC next year. Looking forward to seeing you again in Oshkosh as well.

  5. Gerald FOSTER
    Gerald FOSTER says:

    I am absolutely blown away by the effort you put into the research and writing of this article. I have saved it in my plane file to definitely read again.
    From Bath to Kent – Great work.

  6. David "Mac" McLay
    David "Mac" McLay says:

    Greetings, Dave: Smashing! We have been giving attribution to Da Vinci for – lo! – these many years, since Slingsby and B-707 days in the last century… Forwarding your well-researched and much-appreciated piece to QB brothers nationwide for their enlightenment.
    Blue skies and tailwinds,

  7. Frank
    Frank says:

    Thank you for all that good information.
    Da Vinci drawings were a favorite of mine back in the fifties when i was a teen and loved the idea of flying machines.

  8. Ivan de Clerk
    Ivan de Clerk says:

    Thanks Dave for the research and a professional report. Much appreciated.
    May I ask whether you know where the saying, “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but no old bold pilots”, or something like that, comes from? My father was a pilot in the RAF during WW2 and mentioned it to us as a caution many times.

    • Dave English
      Dave English says:

      That’s a great line! And I had it down as ‘anon’ for a long time. More recently I found this, but always interested in learning more:

      “ Don’t be a show-off. Never be too proud to turn back. There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots. ”

      ~ E. Hamilton Lee. ‘Ham’ Lee began his long and distinguished career as an instructor pilot during World War I. After leaving the Army Air Corps, he flew the airmail for United Air Services, later United Airlines, where he was their most senior pilot.

      The line is cited by many (including the Smithsonian National Postal Museum) as coming from his retirement speech in 1949, but a 1946 The Saturday Evening Post article about ‘Ham’ Lee contained the old and bold elements. It says he “used to be a bold pilot, but changed his mind and became an old pilot instead”.

    • Dave English
      Dave English says:

      Digging into a large newspaper collection, the earliest mention I see is much earlier! The Gazette newspaper, Montreal, 15 January 1925 in a story titled ‘Royal Air Force Flying Record’ quotes Major C. C. Turner RAF as saying that on the walls of some flying clubs is seen the excellent reminder “it is better to be an old pilot than a bold pilot”.

      Thanks for prodding me to search further for this one.

  9. Tony Cox
    Tony Cox says:

    Good to know. I just retired as a Delta Airbus Captain, and the plaque given to me by the company has the supposed da Vinci quote on it, and credited to him. But when has the Headquarters ever been wrong?!?!?!?!?!?

    • Dave English
      Dave English says:

      Now I’m going to have to re-do the whole article!

      Thanks for sharing Tony. Fun to hear how far the line has spread. And congratulations on navigating an airline career all the way through to retirement.

  10. Rhonda L Waterhouse
    Rhonda L Waterhouse says:

    Thank you for this! I knew the quote didn’t seem authentically from Leonardo DiVinci. Your research and explanation are excellent!

  11. Mel Hunt
    Mel Hunt says:

    I’ve always loved this quotation. Thank you for ferreting out and acknowledging its original author. Secondari is worth remembering.

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