I'd like to give a BIG shout out, congratulations, and standing ovation to the University of Toronto Aeronautical Engineering team of students, led by Todd Reichert, for their outstanding achievement recently.
Leonardo DaVinci dreamed of it, and made famous sketches of it. Greek myths of it (Icarus and Daedalus) have inspired the imaginations of humans for thousands of years. Many others, some infamously memorialized in grainy black and white footage, have failed in attempting it. Even TV commercials have been made depicting it lately. Countless times, humans have daydreamed of soaring like the birds while gazing at them on a nice summer day. Not just flying like the birds, really FLYING like the birds: silently flapping wings and defying gravity, like the birds do.
See this funny video below for some of the more infamous actual attempts long ago.
The study of birds and how they fly is called Ornithology, and wacky but very smart engineers/pilots have been chasing this dream for the last twenty years with a committed zealousness. A tightly focused and committed group of ornithopter junkies have existed on the Internet, pursuing their cause, while gaining knowledge and community together. As a result, you can now buy any number of remote controlled ornithopters, or flapping winged remote controlled 'birds'.
About four-five years ago I had a period when I was all gaga myself about designing and creating a human powered ornithopter. In my spare moments while commuting and on overnights, I spent time sketching human powered ornithopters, and thinking and reading about ornithology. I even told a First Officer or two about my dreams (carefully, it's very easy to be labelled a crackpot in this realm!) I fantasized about getting a team together and working on it during our spare time, meeting during the summer to build and experiment. Sketches shown to a pilot when I was commuting in the jumpseat was about as far as it went. I will say, however, that two features of my design ideas have appeared in form on the aircraft successfully flown recently: a high wing, drooping fuselage design, and a rowing, leg pressing motion by the pilot used to flap the wings.
Another University of Toronto team have previously had a successful flight of a powered manned ornithopter, and now, this team led by Aeronautical Engineering PhD candidate Todd Reichert, achieved successful and sustained human powered ornithopter flight multiple times. Although the 'Snowbird' was towed into the air by a car each time, it can be seen that once the aircraft starts flapping, it sustains flight, slightly dipping between each downstroke.
I believe he would have flown longer a longer time and distance, but they were doing it on a grass strip and trees and obstacles were in the way beyond the end of the runway, also on numerous occasions control cables broke and prevented the plane from flapping wings further.
From Canada's National Post: Canadian student pilots first ‘ornithopter’
by Linda Nguyen
A Canadian university student has become the first person ever to pilot a human-powered “wing-flapping” airplane.
Todd Reichert, an engineering graduate student and PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, accomplished the feat when he flew the aircraft “Snowbird” for 19.3 seconds on Aug. 2 at the Great Lakes Gliding Club in Tottenham, Ont.
The 42-kg plane made from carbon fibre, balsa wood and foam, travelled 145 metres at an average speed of 25.6 kilometres per hour during the flight.
“Our original goal was to complete this sort of, original aeronautical dream, to fly like a bird,” said 28-year-old Reichert on Wednesday. “The idea was to fly under your own power by flapping your wings.”
The flight, which was witnessed by a member of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), was set to be officially confirmed as record-breaking next month by the governing body.
The group stayed quiet about the record for nearly two months in order to get the data finalized, he said.
The four-year project, a brainchild of Reichert and student Cameron Robertson, was worked on by 30 students, including some from France and the Netherlands.
The plane, with a wingspan of 32 metres, was powered by Reichert, who petalled with his legs, pulling down the wings to flap. He had to endure a year-long exercise regime to bulk up on muscle and lose nearly 10-kg so he could fly the aircraft.
“Thousands of people have tried to do this for hundreds of years,” said Reichert. “To be honest, I don’t think it’s really set in yet that I’m the one who has been successful. I was pushing with everything I had. When I finally let go and landed, I was hit with a breadth of excitement. It was pretty wild.”
Reichert went through 65 practice flights, and he said the aircraft will probably never be flown again.
The students are attempting to get it into the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.
The FAI is a non-governmental and non-profit organization which aims to further aeronautical and astronautical activities worldwide.