2010 Hero: The Human-Powered Ornithopter Team
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2010 Hero: The Human-Powered Ornithopter Team

Illustration by Matthew Daley/Torontoist.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—Toronto’s very best and very worst people, places, and things over the past twelve months. From December 13–17: the Villains! From December 20–24, the Heroes! And, from December 27–30, you can vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.

In the increasingly absurd quest to round out every conceivable aviation feat, one deceptively simple one has eluded us—a human-powered ornithopter. Mythologized in the myth of Icarus, and sketched by Leonardo da Vinci, the idea of a wing-flapping, human-propelled flying mechanism has captivated the minds of aerialists for millennia.
On the morning of August 2, 2010, on an airstrip in Tottenham, Ontario, a team of University of Toronto engineering students witnessed the flight of Snowbird, the world’s first successful human-powered ornithopter. The craft’s 19.3 seconds of sustained altitude and velocity—watch it here—were, for them, the culmination of nearly four years of hard work and training. It’s a flight that project leader and pilot Todd Reichert told Torontoist was “just right on the cusp of what’s physically possible.”
Snowbird weighs in at a mere 43.5 kilograms, an impressive feat considering its 32-metre wingspan. While the lightweight composite materials required have been around for decades, Reichert notes that it’s only in the past five years that computer models have advanced to the point where a project like this could even be attempted.
It may look low-tech, but according to Reichert, who’s pursuing a PhD in aerospace engineering at U of T, this aircraft is at the absolute vanguard of aerodynamic theory. He and his team of engineers laboured painstakingly over the past several summers, crafting to computational precision the carbon fiber, balsa, and foam components that swiveled and flapped their way into the skies last August. Reichert himself trained very specifically for the feat: he spent months exercising the exact muscle groups that he would be forced to call on during his pedaling frenzy.
And while the 145-metre trajectory pushed Reichert to the very limit of physical endurance, he estimates that “if we started from scratch again and redesigned, we could fly even further.” Not over the English Channel or anything—but Reichert is optimistic. “When the Wright Brothers flew,” he says, “people didn’t necessarily see it as what it would become today.”
For now, Snowbird is just the latest in a long line of Toronto-based ornithopteral breakthroughs. From U of T professor James DeLaurier’s pioneering research in the ’80s and ’90s, to 2006’s “The Great Flapper,” Toronto is fast becoming a center for man-powered wing-flappy doodads. And if that doesn’t make your civic pride swell like a weather balloon at high altitude, well, maybe you need to get your servo guidance mechanism checked.