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50 Reasons to Love Toronto: No. 16, A leg-powered, flapping-wing aircraft took flight

No. 16, This contraption took flight

(Image: Todd Reichert)

The ancient Greeks hypothesized about human-powered flight. Leonardo da Vinci sketched it. R. Kelly wrote a song about it. Last summer, a group of U of T aerospace engineering graduate students succeeded at it with Snowbird—a flapping-wing aircraft powered by a leg press. Snowbird has a wingspan comparable to a Boeing 737, but because it’s mostly built of carbon fibre, balsa wood, foam and wire, it weighs only 42 kilograms. The aircraft was propelled by Todd Reichert, a PhD candidate who readied himself with a personal trainer, reducing his weight by 18 pounds. After four years of preparation, 65 false starts and one disastrous crash, Snowbird finally took wing, reaching an average speed of 25.6 kilometres an hour. For a brief 19.3 seconds, he soared.