Human-powered flight has been a dream of engineers since before Leonardo da Vinci drew the first human ornithopter in the late 15th century. And as the University of Toronto reports, this dream was recently realized by a student named Todd Reichert. Operating a wing-flapping machine called the Snowbird, Reichert flew for 19.3 seconds on Aug. 2 at the Great Lakes Gliding Club in Tottenham, Ontario. This is the first time anyone has flown a human-powered aircraft without crashing.

Todd Reichert is an engineering graduate student and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto. As he told the Vancouver Sun, "Our original goal was to complete this sort of original aeronautical dream, to fly like a bird. The idea was to fly under your own power by flapping your wings." The 94-pound Snowbird, holding the wingspan of a Boeing 737, flew for 475 feet at an average speed of 16 mph as Reichert pedaled with his legs and pulled down on the wings. Reichert trained intensely for the project, losing 18 pounds in a year. Along with student Cameron Robertson, he worked on the project for four years. The project also included 30 other students, with some from the Netherlands and France.

While not practical for everyday travel, the team hopes that the aircraft will serve as an inspiration for other flyers. According to Reichert, “The use of human power, when walking or cycling, is an efficient, reliable, healthy and sustainable form of transportation. 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.

This history of flight dates back to 400 B.C., when the Greek philosopher Archytas designed and built a bird-shaped flyer contraption. It was said he flew 200 meters before presumably crashing. Hot air balloons and kites have flown in China since ancient times. And Leonardo da Vinci built his famous ornithopter in 1496, though his test model never flew.

After 65 practice flights, Reichert says the plane will probably never be flown again. They hope to donate the vehicle to the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa. Reichert’s claim of flight is expected to be verified by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale at its meeting in October.

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