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Human-powered flight stays aloft

In what may be one of the last firsts for aviation, 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 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 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 on a commercial 737, Reichert said.

The ornithopter is powered by the pilot pumping his legs up and down, as if working out on a StairMaster. 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. DeLaurier, who has studied ornithopters for most of his career. More than 30 students and two volunteers worked on it.

The inaugural flight was at 6:45 a.m., when there was virtually no wind. Final assembly of the craft was onsite, because no building would hold it.

Human-powered flight stays aloft 09/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 24, 2010 10:52pm]
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