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World interest soars over Canadian record-breaking flight

In Canada on September 24, 2010 at 08:59
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World interest soars over Canadian record-breaking flight

September 23, 2010

Nicki Thomas

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University of Toronto Ph.D. student Todd Reichert poses next to the body of the Snowbird, the human-powered ornithopter he piloted in a record-setting flight this summer.

NICKI THOMAS/TORONTO STAR

It’s likely the first time an ornithopter has been discussed so widely that it’s been given its own hashtag on Twitter.

The human-powered aircraft with birdlike wings and its pilot, Todd Reichert, are garnering international attention since news broke of its record-breaking continuous flight. Now they’re popping up on newsites, blogs and tweets from Canada to India to Switzerland.

Reichert, an engineering Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto, piloted the first continuous flight of an ornithopter back in August. Using just his legs, Reichert powered the bird for about 20 seconds, covering 145 metres.

The craft weighs just 43 kilograms and has a wingspan of 32 metres. It works by pumping a set of pedals attached to pulleys and lines that bring down the wings in a flapping motion.

The vice-president of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the governing body for aeronautical world records, witnessed the flight. The organization is expected to confirm the world record in October.

“I understand the significance of this but in terms of dealing with the hype, I’m reasonably relaxed,” Reichert said Thursday.

There was one phone call that had him excited, however.

It came from Morton Grosser, who worked on the Gossamer Albatross, the first human-powered propeller driven aircraft to cross the English Channel in 1979.

“So he calls me up — I don’t even know how he got my number — and he says, ‘Todd, welcome to the club,’” Reichert said. “These guys were our heroes. When we started this project, it was, ‘Okay, let’s find the pros, find out what they did, learn from them and use that as a starting block.’”

Reichert spent four years planning, building and testing the Snowbird, along with fellow graduate student Cameron Robertson, and under the supervision of U of T’s James DeLaurier. Volunteers Robert and Carson Dueck rounded out the team.

On their business cards they call themselves the Human-Powered Ornithopter Project. In person, they refer to themselves as “the five amigos.”

For the past two summers, team members took up residence in Tottenham, about an hour’s drive northwest of Toronto. The Snowbird was kept disassembled in a barn at a nearby aviation club with its own runway.

Each morning, the team would bike to the barn before sunrise and put it back together. At first it took them two hours. By the end, they could do it in 30 minutes. In all there were 65 test flights.

“It was hard to describe it to friends,” Reichert said of the commitment. “I am actually working on this every single moment. You wake up, you come here. You work, you eat. You go get dinner, you come back and then you sleep. And it was worth every moment.”

Robertson said it was nostalgic being back at the barn where they spent so much time. He’s now working on an unmanned aircraft at an engineering firm in Brampton. Reichert still has to complete his Ph.D. but he doesn’t anticipate having trouble finding a good job afterward.

“Something like this,” he said of his dream job. “Where you can design and build and innovate and put into practice really quickly. At big aerospace firms, you sit at a computer and you design a very small component for 10 years.

“I need to be out building. I don’t really like doing what other people are doing.”

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