Personal flight—the ability to fly like a bird—remains elusive despite those centuries of adventure and experimentation. That’s not for lack of trying. Over the centuries many inventors, adventurers and scientists have been persistently pursuing the dream of human flight.
Myth of Icarus
One of the earliest records of this dream is perhaps the Greek myth of Icarus.
Icarus is a character in Greek myths. He was the son of Daedalus a brilliant (human) architect in Greek mythology. The story goes that Daedalus was so talented he was imprisoned along with his son and forced to work for the mythical King Minos of Crete. Out of wax and feathers he fashioned wings for both him and Icarus to escape. Before they departed he warned Icarus to stay close to him and not go to near the sun. Unfortunately being a vibrant young man Icarus couldn’t help himself and flew higher and higher until his wings melted and he fell to his death.
17th-century relief depicting the fall of Icarus, with a Cretan labyrinth bottom right (Musée Antoine Vivenel)
Flying Machines of Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance genius spent years deciphering the flight of birds and devising personal flying machines. On his deathbed in 1519, Leonardo said one of his regrets was that he had never flown. Leonardo drew hundreds of images of birds on the wing, trying to decode their secrets, and drafted meticulous plans for flying machines not unlike today’s gliders and helicopters. But he never figured out the physics of flight.
Leonardo daVinci , Study of the Construction and Control of a Wing [1490, Pen and ink ]
For much of his life, Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated by the phenomenon of flight, producing many studies of the flight of birds, including his c. 1505 Codex on the Flight of Birds, as well as plans for several flying machines, including a light hang glider and a machine resembling a helicopter. The British television station Channel Four commissioned a documentary Leonardo’s Dream Machines, for broadcast in 2003. Leonardo’s machines were built and tested according to his original designs. Some of those designs proved a success, whilst others fared less well when practically tested.
Five hundred years of innovation since then had produced the hang glider, simple and safe enough to use by anyone.
Hang gliders have been around since the the 1800′s, though the concepts of flight were not fully understood then, and very few, if any successful flights were made. They began to be practically used around the 1950′s as a branch off of American aerospace research. These first designs were known as parawings, and were developed by Francis and Gertrude Rogallo. Early gliders had wooden or bamboo frames and polythene sails, which is primitive when compared to the new materials used in today’s gliders, which will be discussed in further detail later. These gliders intrigued people then just as they do today because the concept of free flight is often an exciting idea. Nearly everyone (except those with an intense fear of heights) have dreamed at one time or another of being able to soar above the earth. Hang gliding is about the closest we can come to free flight, no motor or source of thrust involved, only you and the open sky.
Human Powered Aircraft
The Gossamer Albatross was a human-powered aircraft built by American aeronautical engineer Dr. Paul B. MacCready’s AeroVironment. On June 12, 1979 it completed a successful crossing of the English Channel to win the second Kremer prize.
The aircraft was designed and built by a team led by Paul B. MacCready, a noted US aeronautics engineer, designer, and world soaring champion. Gossamer Albatross was his second human-powered aircraft, the first being the Gossamer Condor, which had won the first Kremer prize on August 23, 1977 by completing a mile-long figure-eight course. The second Kremer challenge was then announced as a flight across the Channel recalling Louis Blériot’s crossing of 1909. The Albatross was powered using pedals to drive a large two-bladed propeller. Piloted by amateur cyclist Bryan Allen, it completed the 35.8 km (22.2 mi) crossing in 2 hours and 49 minutes, achieving a top speed of 29 km/h (18 mph) and an average altitude of 1.5 metres (5 ft).
Wing-suit Flying and Base Jumping
Uncounted numbers of “birdmen” have died over the centuries after leaping from tower or cliff, not realizing they could never flap homemade wings hard or fast enough to stay aloft. Their modern heirs, BASE jumpers, leap from buildings, cliffs, and bridges, plunge for a few exhilarating moments, then throw out a parachute to slow their fall. Some don wing suits, with baffled fabric wings that generate enough lift to propel the wearer forward at up to 160 miles an hour while falling. J. T. Holmes of Squaw Valley, California, who has made about a thousand wing-suit jumps, says, “It’s as close as human beings can get to flying like a bird.” It’s also extraordinarily dangerous: About 12 BASE jumpers die each year. Hitting the mountain while free-falling or after the parachute deploys is a common cause.
One of the most successful Base Jumpers in the world is Jeb Corliss. In the movie below, Jeb Corliss and Roberta Mancino share their perspective into the world of proximity wingsuit flying and base jumping with their GoPro cameras. Watch to see onboard footage and personal interviews as they tell their stories of love and near death experiences.
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