His­tory is made with hu­man-pow­ered flight

Los Angeles Times - - Science File - Thomas H. Maugh II thomas.maugh @latimes.com

In what may well be one of the last avi­a­tion firsts, a Uni­ver­sity of Toronto grad­u­ate stu­dent has ful­filled an an­cient dream that dates back at least to the Greek leg­end of Daedalus and Icarus — hu­man-pow­ered flight.

In an un­gainly wing-flap­ping craft, or or­nithopter, built by stu­dents at the uni­ver­sity, Todd Re­ichert made his­tory last month by sus­tain­ing both al­ti­tude and air­speed for 19.3 sec­onds, trav­el­ing a lit­tle more than 145 yards at an av­er­age speed of about 16 mph.

The flight, con­ducted at sun­rise Aug. 2 at the Great Lakes Glid­ing Club in Tot­ten­ham, On­tario, was wit­nessed by a vice pres­i­dent of the Fed­er­a­tion Aero­nau­tique In­ter­na­tionale, which cer­ti­fies avi­a­tion records. Re­ichert’s time and dis­tance are ex­pected to be rec­og­nized as world records for hu­man-pow­ered flight at a meet­ing next month of the fed­er­a­tion.

The craft — called the Snow­bird be­cause some of the first ground tests were con­ducted last win­ter on a snow-cov­ered run­way — has a wing­span of 105 feet. That’s nearly as long as the wing­span of a mod­ern-day Boe­ing 737 jet­liner. But be­cause it is con­structed of balsa wood, foam and car­bon fiber, it weighs only 94 pounds — less than all the pil­lows nor­mally car­ried by a com­mer­cial 737, Re­ichert said.

The or­nithopter is pow­ered by the pi­lot pump­ing his legs up and down, as if work­ing out on a Stair Mas­ter. That causes the ends of the wings to flex like those of a gi­ant pterosaur.

The Snow­bird, which cost more than $200,000, was de­signed and built un­der the guid­ance of emer­i­tus aero­space en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor James D. De Lau­rier, who has been study­ing or­nithopters for most of his ca­reer. More than 30 stu­dents and two civil­ian vol­un­teers par­tic­i­pated in its con­struc­tion.

The inaugural flight was made at 6:45 a.m., a time when there were vir­tu­ally no winds to in­ter­fere. The stu­dents com­pleted fi­nal assem­bly of the craft on­site be­cause, Re­ichert said, they had no barn or other build­ing big enough to hold it.

Ini­tially, the craft was towed be­hind a car, but when the tow­line was re­leased, it was pow­ered solely by Re­ichert’s legs. The fact that he was able to main­tain air­speed and al­ti­tude in­di­cated that he was ac­tu­ally pow­er­ing the craft rather than sim­ply glid­ing.

Re­ichert said he un­der­went months of train­ing to build up leg strength. He also shed 18 pounds to min­i­mize the ef­fort re­quired.

The air­craft is not a prac­ti­cal method of trans­port, Re­ichert said in a state­ment re­leased this week. Rather, it is “meant to act as an in­spi­ra­tion to oth­ers to use the strength of their body and the cre­ativ­ity of their minds to fol­low their dreams.”

The stu­dents in­volved also used it as a way to learn about how to build light­weight struc­tures.

AIR­BORNE: Uni­ver­sity of Toronto grad­u­ate stu­dent Todd Re­ichert flies the Snow­bird for 19.3 sec­onds, trav­el­ing about 145 yards at an av­er­age of 16 mph.

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