The Challenge of Manned Ornithopters

The idea of sculpting a flying machine based on the flapping mechanism used by birds is not a new one. Man has likely always dreamed of imitating the freedom that the flight of these birds would allow them. The ancient Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus tells of how young Icarus sculpted wings of wax and feathers for himself in his pursuit of his dream of flight. But since the first successful flight of the Wright Brothers, the idea of designing an aircraft based on the exact same mechanisms of propulsion used by birds has been largely forgotten.

An ornithopter is essentially an aircraft that propels itself forward by flapping its wings. It may be based on any flying creature and is usually designed to follow the same dimensions and actions of the creature it is based on. While most ornithopters use birds as a basis for their designs, others have used bats or flying insects such as a dragonfly. The Dragonfly toy made by Wow-Wee is an example of this. However not many people will attempt to build an ornithopter large enough for them to pilot it from the cockpit. Manned ornithopters are certainly not a new idea, but they are a rarity. Despite the difficult challenges that arise from designing and creating such an aircraft, there have been reports of successful flights by manned ornithopters.

One example of early manned ornithopter flight can be found in the aircraft made and manned by Alexander Lippisch which flew about 250 meters after a tow launch in 1929. Lippisch and a number of successors relied on their own muscle power and so their flights were relatively short and it was argued that they relied more on glide than on actual flapping. The concept started to pick up speed in 1942 when Adalbert Schmid flew a motorized and manned ornithopter successfully for a period of fifteen minutes. His design featured a large fixed wing behind which a pair of small, flapping wings were mounted.

Over the next few centuries, more and more people attempted to build and man ornithopers with varying degrees of success. Perhaps one of the most successful but also the most tragic was Yves Rousseau who managed to fly a distance of 64 meters in a human-muscle-powered ornithopter. Unfortunately during his 213th flight attempt, one of his aircraft’s wings was broken up by a gust of wind and Rousseau plummeted back to earth where he was gravely injured. One of the most recent attempts was made in 2006 by Professor De Laurier who managed to sustain his flight for 14 seconds.

Ornithopers have seen a lot of practical application over the years in various fields of science and biology but as of yet, mankind still struggles to man these vehicles successfully. With continual advancements in science and technology, however, it shouldn’t be long before this long-time dream becomes a reality.