Flying high. Artist's rendition of "Nightingale."

Flying Like a Fossil Flapper

Man has schemed about flying like a bird at least since Leonardo da Vinci designed a winged contraption 5 centuries ago. But so far, no one has succeeded in building an ornithopter--a flapping flying machine--that will take off and stay up unaided. Now one aeronaut is looking to the ancient leathery-winged pterosaur in hopes of becoming the pilot of the world's first successful ornithopter.

For 4 years, Patricia Jones-Bowman has been the test pilot for University of Toronto researchers who have been laboriously fine-tuning an engine-driven flapping craft named Big Bill. The machine, which has a joint at the base of each airplane-style wing, has managed to achieve the necessary take-off speed of 80 kilometers per hour, but hasn't gotten beyond little hops off the runway.

Jones-Bowman is now aiming to break through the flapping-flight barrier in a craft of her own design. A large pterosaur may have had a wingspan of 11 meters, "which made it the size of a light aircraft," she says. Her "Nightingale" will have joints analogous to those of bird shoulders, wrists and knuckles. The wings will be made of saillike membranes and the pilot will be able to tilt them various ways, which Jones-Bowman hopes will minimize the bumpy "fuselage heaving" caused by once-a-second flapping.

The aspiring pilot has the help of Tennessee engineer Jim Cunningham, who has been studying two fossil pterosaurs to figure out just how their wings worked. They are easier to mimic than a feathered bird wing, weigh less, and give better aerodynamic performance over a larger range of positions, he says. Cunningham believes that a large pterosaur could launch itself without "running and a lot of mad flapping"--but he won't say how, because he's going to publish a paper on it.

Jones-Bowman plans to launch a scaled down, radio-controlled model of Nightingale this month; and she hopes to start testing the real thing before the end of the year.

Related site
Project Ornithopter