Pedal-powered plane flaps wings to fly

A human-powered ‘ornithopter’ with flapping wings has become the first aircraft of its kind to achieve sustained flight.

The concept of the ornithopter – a plane with flapping wings – goes all the way back to the legend of Icarus, but was most notably proposed by Leonardo da Vinci. While several powered versions have acieved flight, muscles alone have never before been sufficient.

The pedal-powered Snowbird made its record-breaking flight last month at Canada’s Great Lakes Gliding Club. It stayed in the air for 19.3 seconds – don’t knock it, it’s harder than it looks – and covered a distance of 145 metres at an average speed of 25.6kmh.

“The Snowbird represents the completion of an age-old aeronautical dream,” says lead developer and project manager Reichert. “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. This represents one of the last of the aviation firsts.”

The plane weighs just 94 pounds, and has a wingspan of 105 feet. Although its wingspan is comparable to that of a Boeing 737, the Snowbird weighs less than all of the pillows on board, its developers say. Pilot Reichert actually went to the length of losing 18 pounds of body weight to make the flight possible.

“The use of human power, when walking or cycling, is an efficient, reliable, healthy and sustainable form of transportation,” says Reichert.

“Though the aircraft is not a practical method of transport, it is also meant to act as an inspiration to others to use the strength of their body and the creativity of their mind to follow their dreams.”

The Snowbird was designed by Reichert, fellow University of Toronto Engineering graduate student Cameron Robertson, UTIAS Professor Emeritus James D DeLaurier and community volunteers Robert and Carson Dueck.