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Vid Canadian enthusiasts have finally achieved a feat that has eluded humanity's finest engineers since the time of Leonardo da Vinci - to build a machine, powered by a human pilot's muscles, which flies by flapping its wings: an ornithopter.

The "Snowbird" man-powered ornithopter achieved its history-making flight last month in Ontario, Canada, witnessed by a Canadian official of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) - the body responsible for authenticating aviation records, first flights and the like. The machine was piloted (and flapped) by Todd Reichert, an engineering PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. It flew for 19.3 seconds, and covered a distance of 145 metres at an average speed of 25.6 kilometres per hour.

"This represents one of the last of the aviation firsts," said Reichert, who was also leader of the project to build the Snowbird. The intrepid ornithopteror had undergone a rigorous training regime prior to the flight, which involved shedding over 18lb of weight over 4 weeks.

The Snowbird itself, constructed mainly from wire, carbon fibre, foam and balsa wood, weighs just 94lb despite having a 105-foot wingspan comparable to that of a Boeing 737. Its pilot powers the flapping wings by pedalling like a cyclist, one of the most efficient ways to generate energy using the human body.

The ornithopter is the culmination of decades of effort at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) which has long studied flapping-wing flight and encouraged many of its students to work towards a human-powered example. The Institute's Professor James DeLaurier won an FAI “Diplôme d’Honneur” as long ago as 1991 for developing the world's first remotely-piloted, engined ornithopter.

"This achievement is the direct result of Todd Reichert's dedication, perseverance, and ability and adds to the already considerable legacy of Jim DeLaurier, UTIAS's great ornithopter pioneer," said Professor David Zingg, Director of UTIAS. "It also reflects well on the rigorous education Todd received at the University of Toronto. We're very proud of Todd and the entire team for this outstanding achievement in aviation history."

The Snowbird now seems set for retirement into the museums, as it is already showing signs of wear and Reichert's training regime was tightly focused on a planned time window. According to the project's organisers there would be little chance of getting any longer flights out of it this year, and "the risk of destroying a historical artifact is not worth the reward".

However the design team expect to post full tech details at their website in coming weeks, saying that the Snowbird is merely the "first iteration" in human-powered ornithopters. They anticipate major steps forward in future "whether designed by or by another team of inspired and dedicated individuals".

There's some basis in past history for that: the original propellor-driven Gossamer Condor of 1977, the world's first successful human-powered aircraft, was succeeded 11 years later by the MIT Daedalus which flew more than 70 miles across the Mediterranean from Crete to Santorini.

If he could be aware of this summer's events, Leonardo da Vinci - who famously sketched out designs for a human-powered ornithopter in the 15th century - would doubtless be overjoyed to see his dream finally come to life. However, given that these various exploits took place well into the era of jet planes and spacecraft, he might also be just a trifle puzzled. ®

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