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Grad Student Claims First Human-Powered Ornithopter Flight


September 23, 2010 — Todd Reichert, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, announced Wednesday that he had completed the first continuous flight of a human-powered ornithopter, the mythical aircraft with birdlike flapping wings first envisioned by Leonardo da Vinci in 1485, The Toronto Star reported. Reichert said his flight, launched by a towline attached to an automobile, sustaining both altitude and airspeed for 19.3 seconds over 145 meters (475 feet) at a top speed of 25 kph (approximately 16 mph).

It occurred on August 2, 2010, in Tottenham, Ontario, and a representative from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), keeper of world aeronautical records, was also present to witness the flight. FAI will determine by sometime in October if it did in fact set a record.

The aircraft, named “Snowbird,” weighs just under 43 kilograms (94 lbs) with a 32-meter (105-ft) wingspan. It’s made of carbon fiber tubes, foam, and balsawood. Richter and another graduate student, Cameron Robertson, led a team of students building the aircraft over four years at a cost of $200,000. It works by pumping a set of pedals attached to pulleys and lines that make the wings flap, Reichert says. When the pilot pushes the pedals, the go down, and aerodynamic forces pull them back up, creating the thrust.

“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.”

The team is in talks with the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa to donate the Snowbird for display.

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