Media Releases

Human-powered ornithopter becomes first ever to achieve sustained flight

September 22, 2010

TORONTO, ON – Avi­a­tion his­to­ry was made when the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s human-pow­ered air­craft with flap­ping wings became the first of its kind to fly con­tin­u­ous­ly.

The “Snow­bird” per­formed its record-break­ing flight on August 2 at the Great Lakes Glid­ing Club in Tot­ten­ham, Ont., wit­nessed by the vice-pres­i­dent (Cana­da) of the Fédéra­tion Aéro­nau­tique Inter­na­tionale (FAI), the world-gov­ern­ing body for air sports and aero­nau­ti­cal world records. The offi­cial record claim was filed this month, and the FAI is expect­ed to con­firm the ornithopter’s world record at its meet­ing in Octo­ber.

For cen­turies engi­neers have attempt­ed such a feat, ever since Leonar­do da Vin­ci sketched the first human-pow­ered ornithopter in 1485.

But under the pow­er and pilot­ing of Todd Reichert, an Engi­neer­ing PhD can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Insti­tute for Aero­space Stud­ies (UTIAS), the wing-flap­ping device sus­tained both alti­tude and air­speed for 19.3 sec­onds, and cov­ered a dis­tance of 145 metres at an aver­age speed of 25.6 kilo­me­tres per hour.

“The Snow­bird rep­re­sents the com­ple­tion of an age-old aero­nau­ti­cal dream,” says lead devel­op­er and project man­ag­er Reichert. “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.”

The Snow­bird weighs just 94 lbs. and has a wing span of 32 metres (105 feet). Although its wingspan is com­pa­ra­ble to that of a Boe­ing 737, the Snow­bird weighs less than all of the pil­lows on board. Pilot Reichert lost 18 lbs. of body weight this past sum­mer to facil­i­tate fly­ing the air­craft.

With sus­tain­abil­i­ty in mind, Aero­space Engi­neer­ing grad­u­ate stu­dents of UTIAS learned to design and build light­weight and effi­cient struc­tures. The research also pro­mot­ed “the use of the human body and spir­it,” says 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.”

The Snow­bird devel­op­ment team is com­prised of two Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Engi­neer­ing grad­u­ate stu­dents: Reichert, and Cameron Robert­son (MASc 2009) as the chief struc­tur­al engi­neer; UTIAS Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus James D. DeLau­ri­er as fac­ul­ty advi­sor; and com­mu­ni­ty vol­un­teers Robert and Car­son Dueck. More than 20 stu­dents from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to and up to 10 exchange stu­dents from Poitiers Uni­ver­si­ty, France, and Delft Tech­ni­cal Uni­ver­si­ty, Nether­lands, also par­tic­i­pat­ed in the project.

“This achieve­ment is the direct result of Todd Reichert’s ded­i­ca­tion, per­se­ver­ance, and abil­i­ty and adds to the already con­sid­er­able lega­cy of Jim DeLau­ri­er, UTIAS’s great ornithopter pio­neer,” said Pro­fes­sor David Zingg, Direc­tor of UTIAS. “It also reflects well on the rig­or­ous edu­ca­tion Todd received at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to. We’re very proud of Todd and the entire team for this out­stand­ing achieve­ment in avi­a­tion his­to­ry.”

A pho­to oppor­tu­ni­ty for jour­nal­ists, with the ornithopter on dis­play, will be held tomor­row, Thurs­day, Sep­tem­ber 23rd at 1 p.m. at the Great Lakes Glid­ing Club in Tot­ten­ham, Ontario. RSVP to Eliz­a­beth Raymer by Thurs­day at 10 a.m., and to receive direc­tions.

Video footage is avail­able in 720p on Vimeo, at (For 1080p, please con­tact Eliz­a­beth Raymer for FTP infor­ma­tion.) Images are avail­able as high-res­o­lu­tion jpegs at

About Engi­neer­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
The Fac­ul­ty of Applied Sci­ence & Engi­neer­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to is the pre­mier engi­neer­ing insti­tu­tion in Cana­da. Estab­lished as the School of Prac­ti­cal Sci­ence in 1873, Engi­neer­ing at U of T ranks first in Cana­da and eighth in the world in the 2009 Times High­er Education–QS World Uni­ver­si­ty Rank­ings and 2010 U.S. News & World Report rank­ings. With approx­i­mate­ly 4,850 under­grad­u­ates, 1,600 grad­u­ate stu­dents and 230 pro­fes­sors, Engi­neer­ing at U of T is in the fore­front of glob­al research. Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Insti­tute for Aero­space Stud­ies (UTIAS) is a unique, nation­al cen­tre of aca­d­e­m­ic excel­lence in Aero­space Sci­ence and Engi­neer­ing with­in the Fac­ul­ty of Applied Sci­ence & Engi­neer­ing.


For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Eliz­a­beth Raymer
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Media Rela­tions Coor­di­na­tor
Fac­ul­ty of Applied Sci­ence & Engi­neer­ing, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

Todd Reichert
PhD Aero­space Engi­neer­ing can­di­date, pilot and lead devel­op­er
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Insti­tute for Aero­space Stud­ies
Cell: 416–995-3278
Home: 613–835-4224