A University of Toronto student has succeeded where Leonardo Da Vinci had failed, completing the first continuous flight of the human-powered aircraft known as an ornithopter. Todd Reichert , a PhD student at the U of T Institute for Aerospace Studies at the University of Toronto, succeeded in piloting the aircraft, which flies by flapping its wings like a bird. The concept was conceived back in 1485 by legendary inventor Leonardo Da Vinci who sketched flying machines but never actually made one.
Reichert’s craft, named the Snowbird, is similar to Da Vinci’s designs and weighs just under 43 kilograms with a wing span of 32 meters. Made of carbon fiber, foam and balsa wood, the entire weight of the craft is equal to the all the pillows on a commercial jet. It took Reichert and his colleague, Cameron Robertson, over four years to make the aircraft, which cost over $200,000.
It works by pumping a set of pedals attached to pulleys and lines that bring down the wings in an elegant flapping motion, a feat that requires both engineering and physical prowess.
The project was overseen by James DeLaurier, a retired Institute for Aerospace Studies professor who is one of the world’s leading experts on ornithopters, and who has devoted his career to birdlike flight. In 2006, he built and flew a motorized ornithopter called the Flapper, another aviation first, however he has never created a purely human-powered craft. Speaking of Reichert’s achievement, DeLaurier said, “This is the last first in aviation, and in many ways the most significant one.”
To get ready for the flight, Reichert lost eight kilograms, went on a special diet and trained daily – especially his leg muscles. Before the main flight in Tottenham, Ontario, he took 65 test runs and said of the night before, “I didn’t sleep. My mind was just racing.”
“It was such a neat feeling . . . you kept pushing and it kept maintaining altitude,” Reichert said. “All of a sudden, it clicked and we were able to stay up there.”
During the flight, a representative from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the world body governing aeronautical records, was present to witness the event. Due to its milestone achievement, there is talk of the Snowbird being donated to the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.
A video of the flight can be viewed here.