Ornithopters, aircraft that fly by flapping their wings, are a staple at birdman rallies the world over, inevitably resulting in the pilots of such craft plunging headlong into the drink.
Now, more than 500 years after Leonardo da Vinci sketched the first human-powered ornithopter in 1485, a team from the University of Toronto have succeeded where so many before them have failed and made aviation history by achieving a world record for sustained flight in a human-powered aircraft with flapping wings.
The record-breaking flight of the craft, called the “Snowbird”, took place on August 2 at the Great Lakes Gliding Club in Tottenham, Ontario. On it the Snowbird managed to sustain both altitude and airspeed for 19.3 seconds, covering a distance of 145 meters (475.7 feet) at an average speed of 25.6 km/h (15.9 mph). That might not sound overly impressive, but it was enough to set a world record for such a craft that is expected to be confirmed next month.
The Snowbird itself weighs just 94 lbs. (42.6 kg) and has a wingspan of 32 meters (105 feet). Although its wingspan is comparable to that of a Boeing 737, the Snowbird development team says its craft weighs less than all of the pillows on board that aircraft. It was piloted and powered by Todd Reichert, an Engineering PhD candidate at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) who lost 18 lbs. (8 kg) of body weight this past summer to facilitate flying the aircraft.