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Sat, Jul 15, 2006

One Da Vinci Code Deciphered: Ornithopter Flies!

'Flapper' Lifts Off For 14 Seconds

An alert ANN News-Spy called our attention to a rather remarkable achievement recently up north: the successful, sustained flight of a real-life, manned "ornithopter" -- a design steeped in mystery, that originated on the drawing board of one Leonardo da Vinci.

Perhaps you've heard of him.

The Toronto Star reports Dr. James DeLaurier, an aeronautical engineer and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto's Institute for Aerospace Studies, witnessed the first successful flight of his manned ornithopter design July 8 -- if only for 14 seconds, after which time a gusty crosswind brought the contraption down in a hard landing. But it was enough, DeLaurier said, just seeing his design take flight.

"It is a perfect day," he said after the flight. "If I have the big one now, I'll die happy."

But what, exactly, is an ornithopter? As the name implies, its design is rooted in avian world -- a vessel that achieves flight by mimicking the flapping movements of a bird's wings (its name derives from the Greek ornithos, or "bird" and pteron, "wing".) Da Vinci first dreamed up the design in the late 15th century -- and while many tried to take flight in ornithopters in the centuries leading up the Wright Brothers' first flight of a far more conventional bird in 1903, very few have been able to succeed.

What makes DeLaurier's achievement notable, in particular, is that last Saturday's flight is believed to be the first confirmed example of an ornithopter taking flight, completely under its own power -- in this case, by a 60-lbs thrust model jet engine. Previous confirmed flights have been made in contraptions that either glided down from a higher place, or were towed into the air*.

"You did it man," DeLaurier told pilot Jack Sanderson. "You've made an old professor really happy. You've made aviation history."

DeLaurier has worked with ornithopters since he was a teenager, building rubber-band-powered models out of balsa wood. He says he got serious in 1973, when he teamed up with a fellow colleague, Jeremy Harris, who shared his enthusiasm with ornithopters.

The two men experimented with several designs, before successfully flying a remote-controlled ornithopter -- called "Mr. Bill" (oh no!) -- in 1991. A successor model is now displayed at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, IL.

Despite the team's success, DeLaurier writes on the project website that the flight wasn't a true example of an ornithopter... at least in the da Vinci vein.

"The important thing to remember is that the aircraft needed jet power to stay aloft. It wasn't a pure flapping-wing flight," DeLaurier says. "...Of course, in all fairness I should say that the jet alone could not have even come close to sustaining the aircraft; the flapping still did most of the work."

"So, we can say it was a jet-assisted ornithopter that sustained level flight."

Which is, of course, still a pretty remarkable achievement.

* Note -- There are unconfirmed reports of earlier, powered, manned ornithopter flights, as well -- going back as early as 1781, when Karl Friederich Meerwein reportedly flew a powered ornithopter in Germany. More recently, Adalbert Schmid made powered flights in a motorized, manned ornithopter in 1942 -- and a Russian team, led by Vladimir Toporov, built a tow-launched, human-powered ornithopter that could reportedly climb under power in the early 1990s.

And then there's the mythical tale of Daedalus and Icarus... but that's another story.



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