'World's first' ornithopter takes flight

Todd Reichert flew the craft by using a foot pump to flap its wings. Video courtesy of University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies

A Canadian student inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's sketches says he has made the first sustained flight in a human-powered, wing-flapping aircraft.

Start Quote

Throughout history, countless men and women have dreamt of flying like a bird”

End Quote Todd Reichert Pilot, Snowbird

Todd Reichert's ornithopter is an engineless plane that stays aloft by flapping its wings like a bird.

The craft, dubbed "Snowbird", flew 145m (476 feet) at the Great Lakes Gliding Club in Tottenham, Ontario.

The Federation Aeronautique Internationale is expected to confirm the record at its meeting in October.

Previous attempts

Mr Reichert, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, said the Snowbird "represents the completion of an age-old aeronautical dream".

"Throughout history, countless men and women have dreamt of flying like a bird under their own power, and hundreds, if not thousands have attempted to achieve it," he said in a statement.

"This represents one of the last of the aviation firsts."

Ornithopter flown by Todd Reichert Other craft with flapping wings have taken off, but the team claim theirs is the first to actually power itself in flight

Built from carbon fibres and balsa wood, Snowbird has a wing span of 32m (105 feet) - comparable to a Boeing 737.

But the aircraft weighs just 43kg (94 pounds).

To keep it light, lift-off mechanisms were not built in. Instead, a tow car helped lift it clear of the ground. But then Mr Reichert took over, using his feet to pump a bar that flaps the wings.

Snowbird flew for 19.3 seconds on its record-breaking flight, travelling at an average speed of 25.6 km/h (16.5 mph). The feat was accomplished on 2 August.

Todd Reichert (left) Todd Reichert lost more than a stone to keep Snowbird airborne

Others have claimed to have built machines that flew like birds. But those craft are seen as having just glided after they took off.

The Canadian group says their ornithopter actually powered itself through the air, and that they have the telemetry data to prove it.

"Those past claims were never verified," said chief structural engineer Cameron Robertson. "We believe we are the first, because we know what it took to do it."

To achieve their dream, the team had to design a flapping wing with enough lift and thrust to overcome the aircraft's weight. And Mr Reichert also lost 8kg (18 pounds) of weight over the summer.

He said Snowbird "is not a practical method of transport". Rather, the aim of the project was to inspire others "to use the strength of their body and the creativity of their mind".

The Italian painter Leonardo Da Vinci made his famous sketches of the ornithopter around 1485.

But it was not until 1903 that the Wright brothers made the first powered flight, lasting 12 seconds and covering 37m (121 feet).

In 1977, the Gossamer Condor became the first human-powered aircraft capable of controlled and sustained flight after covering a 1.6km (one-mile) figure-of-eight course.

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