With help from his graduate students, James DeLaurier, a professor at the University of Toronto's Institute for Aerospace Studies, has created an ornithopter--a full-size plane designed to get off the ground when its wings flap. Pilot Jack Sanderson will attempt to fly the contraption a few thousand feet next April.
If it succeeds, the flight will fulfill a dream that has foiled Icarus, Leonardo da Vinci and other, more modern aviation pioneers--that is, to achieve flight by means of undulating wings. In standard planes, an engine pushes the plane forward, and the lift is generated under a fixed wing. By contrast, the ornithopter is like a bird: The engine causes the wings to beat, which, in turn, creates the conditions for a lift.
"We are doing it to try to achieve humanity's oldest dream of flight, which hasn't been realized," DeLaurier said. "You might say we are trying for the beauty of it."
The flight will also represent the culmination of a decades-long drive for the aviation engineer, who began his career working on the Apollo project at NASA's Ames Laboratory in Mountain View, Calif.
DeLaurier made balsa wood ornithopter models as a kid and tinkered with the idea of making bigger ones through the 1970s and 1980s. In 1991, DeLaurier created a radio-controlled, motorized ornithopter that achieved sustained flight. The Federation Aeronautique International (FAI) recognized it as the first flight of a motorized ornithopter. Since then, others have achieved similar flights.
The machine to be tested in the coming trials differs in key ways. The ornithopter from the 1991 flight was about a fourth the size of a regular plane and flew by remote control. The ornithopter in the coming flight can accommodate a human, who will sit inside and fly it.
DeLaurier has been working on the machine since 1996. "We got it to go over 50mph down the runway, and we managed a few short hops," he said.
Mechanical problems, however, prevented the machine from taking flight. On one occasion, the chain fell off. Another time, a wing tip disintegrated and had to be replaced with Kevlar and carbon fiber. During yet another trial, hardened steel bolts fractured due to fatigue.
"If we were funded by NASA, we'd be off the ground by now," DeLaurier said.
Unlike Richard Branson and some of the, the rocket that recently made an unprecedented