When University of Toronto engineering students recently demonstrated a man-powered ornithopter, they joined a long line of bird imitators, stretching back to ancient Greece and China. Unlike earlier experimenters, the students can cite telemetry data to prove their man-powered machine, the Snowbird, wasn’t merely gliding, and that it sustained altitude and airspeed for 19.3 seconds in an August 2, 2010, flight witnessed by a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale official. Weighing just 94 pounds but with a 105-foot wingspan, the ornithopter covered 475 feet after it lifted off from a field. Pilot Todd Reichert used his feet to pump a bar to flap the wings, resulting in what some said looked like a drunken bird making its way through the air (you can watch the flight on YouTube and other online sources).
The idea of flying like a bird or bat has long been associated with Leonardo da Vinci, whose drawings of ornithopters date from the late 1400s. There’s no proof da Vinci built such a device, much less ever got one of his inventions into the air. But there is evidence, including photos, that German engineer Alexander Lippisch—who later designed the Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet— created a human-powered ornithopter that flew in the Rhön Mountains in the spring of 1929. Lippisch explained in a 1960 issue of the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society that his Schwinguin’s wings were flapped “by the action of the legs, quite similar to the rowing motion.”
Lippisch recruited a strapping young pilot, Hans Werner Krause, to fly his 110- pound machine. Lippisch wrote, “The main trouble was that Hans Werner did not see any real reason for working hard while flying, since a little engine could have done these things so much better.” Eventually the designer came up with a “carrot” for his flier—a vacation to see his girlfriend in Berlin if he completed the test—after which Werner eagerly flapped about 900 feet. Too bad Lippisch didn’t rope in an FAI observer to verify the Schwinguin’s achievement.
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.