As kids, we dreamt of a day where we'd flap our wings and take off into the great blue yonder to travel amongst the birds, right? On the swings, we pumped higher and higher until at last, for an exhilarating second, we would let go as we reached maximum height and soared freely through the air, experiencing complete independence from terra firma. When did we stop trying to fly? When did we become so content with remaining beholden to gravity? Well, Todd Reichert never gave up that silly dream.

After years of planning and development with a team made up of some of the best and brightest in aeronautical engineering, Reichert, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto's Institute of Aerospace Studies, recently achieved what we all dream of doing: Flying by simply flapping his wings.

  • The Snowbird is constructed mostly out of fiber, foam and balsa wood in order for it to be very lightweight.
  • Image Credit: Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, U of T, Flickr
  • The wings of the Snowbird ornithopter are 105 feet across, comparable to the wingspan of a Boeing 737.
  • Image Credit: Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, U of T, Flickr
  • The team prepares the Snowbird for flight.
  • Image Credit: Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, U of T, Flickr
  • The record-breaking flight took place at the Great Lakes Gliding Club in Tottenham, Ontario.
  • Image Credit: Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, U of T, Flickr
  • Todd Reichert trained daily in order to be strong enough to operate the ornithopter's wings with his legs.
  • Image Credit: Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, U of T, Flickr
  • The Snowbird was designed to fly at just 16 MPH so it could remain airborne solely under human power.
  • Image Credit: Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, U of T, Flickr
  • Reichert's flight lasted 19.3 seconds and spanned a distance of 159 yards.
  • Image Credit: Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, U of T, Flickr
  • The flight was the first of its kind since the original designs for such a machine were sketched in the 15th century.
  • Image Credit: Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, U of T, Flickr
  • A series of photos showing the Snowbird's wings flapping. Reichert pumped a set of pedals attached to lines and pulleys in order to operate them.
  • Image Credit: Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, U of T, Flickr
  • The Snowbird team.
  • Image Credit: Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, U of T, Flickr


Reichert was able to achieve such a feat through the use of the "Snowbird" Ornithopter, the result of four years of development and construction. A super-lightweight aircraft, the Snowbird is able to fly exclusively through the power of Reichert flapping its wings. It made aviation history by becoming the first-ever human-powered aircraft to attain sustained flight, remaining airborne for a full 19.3 seconds.

While that may not seem like an impressive amount of time, it is important to keep in mind that human-powered flight has been attempted – but not successfully accomplished – for centuries, ever since Leonardo da Vinci drew up the first design for such a machine in 1485.

"The Snowbird represents the completion of an age-old aeronautical dream," said Reichert, lead developer and project manager of the Snowbird. "Throughout history, countless men and women have dreamt of flying like a bird under their own power, and hundreds, if not thousands have attempted to achieve it. This represents one of the last of the aviation firsts."

Humans are able to create only a mere 0.3 horsepower by themselves, which presents some acute challenges in achieving human-powered flight. Namely, the aircraft must be moving very slowly in order to sustain flight, since the power necessary to fly any aircraft increases rapidly with speed. In order to remedy such a problem, the Snowbird had to be designed to be very lightweight, but also very large.

To tackle such an issue, Reichert and his team constructed the Snowbird mainly out of carbon fiber, foam and balsa wood, which are all supported by an external bracing made of wire. Such light materials add up to a final product weighing just 94 lbs, yet allow the aircraft to have a massive wingspan of 105 feet, comparable to that of a Boeing 737.



On August 2, after countless hours of planning and development, Recihert achieved what so many in history have unsuccessfully tried to do. At the Great Lakes Gliding Club in Tottenham, Ontario, with the vice-president of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale present to witness, Reichert achieved his dream of human-powered flight for what was certainly an exhilarating 159 yards at 16 miles per hour.

Reichert said that he went for the record as a part of an effort to promote "the use of the human body and spirit," in exploring sustainable and efficient modes of transportation.

"The use of human power, when walking or cycling, is an efficient, reliable, healthy and sustainable form of transportation," he said. "Though the aircraft is not a practical method of transport, it is also meant to act as an inspiration to others to use the strength of their body and the creativity of their mind to follow their dreams."

Thus, even though Reichert acknowledges that the Snowbird will not revolutionize personal transit anytime soon, he notes that it can remind us all that there is limitless potential for progress in transportation technology.

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