Dr. James DeLaurier, an aeronautical engineer and professor emeritus at Canada’s University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies, fulfilled a lifelong dream July 9.
He saw his manned, jet-powered, flapping-wing airplane – a full-scale ornithopter – actually fly. It was the culmination of a quest that he had pursued for more than 30 years.
The flight also gave DeLaurier, his team of volunteers and his students a singular place in aeronautical history, having achieved a dream first sketched out by Leonardo da Vinci, some 500 years ago.
DeLaurier’s “Flapper” was airborne for 14 seconds, during which it flew about 1,000 feet down the runway at Downsview Park, near Toronto, reaching an altitude of about 6 feet. The brief flight ended when a crosswind gust hit the Flapper, tilting it and damaging a wing, the nose and nose wheel. Even so, it was long enough to prove that DeLaurier’s unique design actually works. In fact, it was a longer flight than the first one made by the Wright brothers, which was two seconds shorter.
The successful flight was made on the fifth attempt that day to get the Flapper to fly.
DeLaurier’s ornithopter was described by one witness as looking like “a cross between an old-fashioned plane and a Canada goose.”
Like many before him, DeLaurier had puzzled over the idea of mechanical flapping-wing flight for many years.
“I hadn’t planned on this taking most of my career, but I don’t regret it,” DeLaurier told Toronto Star reporter Debra Black. “Life has meaning if you measure yourself against a worthy goal. And for an aerospace engineer who loves aviation history, this has been a worthy goal.”
Da Vinci’s elaborate plan for an ornithopter never could have flown, DeLaurier said, because the specified materials would be too heavy, but it piqued DeLaurier’s interest in ornithopters. When he was a teenager, he built rubber band-powered ornithopter models of balsa wood. In 1973 he met Jeremy Harris, a researcher at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, who made some key aerodynamic calculations. The two teamed up, working on the ornithopter as a hobby. “It turned out to be a formidable problem to make a successful engine-powered ornithopter,” DeLaurier said, but in 1991 they flew a remote-controlled model successfully and decided to design a full-scale, piloted version.
Harris eventually dropped out of the project but DeLaurier kept plugging away at it with a team of volunteers, some student assistants, and several research grants. The end result was “276 kilograms (607 pounds) of Kevlar, aviation plywood, carbon fiber, spruce, aluminum, steel and duct tape.” A tiny jet engine intended for model airplanes provides 60 pounds of thrust.
DeLaurier said that he probably will repair the Flapper prototype and donate it to the aerospace museum at Downsview Park, where it flew.
As to the future: The plane has proven that it can sustain flight, DeLaurier said. “The flapping wings work, but they weren’t the right size. Bigger wings are needed if flight is to be sustained without a jet engine.” That, he said, would cost more money than a retired professor has.
“Now, if a sponsor came forward, well, that would be another matter,” he said.
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