Manned Ornithopters
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What is an "ornithopter"?
An ornithopter is a mechanical "bird" that flies by flapping wings.
          When was the first ornithopter?
About 1870, but the first manned ornithopter was flown in 1942.
Build your own ornithopter!
...with BirdKit.com. Simple school projects to advanced robotics.

Discover Flapping Wings!


An ornithopter is a device that flies by flapping wings.

How is it different from an airplane or helicopter? Those machines are driven by rotating airfoils. In an ornithopter, the driving airfoils have a back-and-forth motion instead. This imitates nature, because no animals have any rotating parts.

Leonardo da Vinci did not invent the ornithopter.

The idea of the ornithopter goes back to ancient times. Ancient Assyrians depicted God flying in a winged chariot or ornithopter at least 3,000 years ago. Ornithopter attempts were made before Leonardo's time, and Leonardo himself never actually built one -- he only drew sketches. The first successful flight of a manned ornithopter took place in 1942.

Build your own ornithopter!

Experience the challenge of building your own ornithopter, with model kits from BirdKit.com. Bird kits range from simple models powered by rubber band, to advanced robotic birds. They are all great flyers and perfect for school projects!

Ornithopter Examples
Science Olympiad: Students compete to see who can make the longest flight time with an ornithopter or "flying bird"of their own construction. The challenge of building and flying these models is a great way for kids to learn about science and also how to work together as a team.

Ornithopter Hobbyists: For many years, hobbyists have enjoyed building and flying their own ornithopters. The ornithopter provides enduring satisfaction: Although it's now easy to get started in this hobby, you can go on and pursue an endless variety of more advanced projects.
Micro Air Vehicle Ornithopters: Researchers are developing tiny ornithopters that can pass as a bird or insect. Some of these MAV ornithopters can hover in place and carry useful payloads like spy cameras. Typical MAV ornithopters are controlled by radio.
Manned Ornithopters: A few manned ornithopters have made successful flights. Many people are not aware of this work and still believe that manned flapping-wing flight is impossible. A more accurate understanding is that it requires more advanced technology compared with the simple propeller-driven airplane.
Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is an "ornithopter"?
A: An ornithopter is a device that imitates the flapping-wing flight found in nature. The word "ornithopter" (c.1908) combines the ancient Greek words for "bird" and "wing". An ornithopter doesn't need to have feathers, though. What makes it birdlike is the flapping motion! Airplanes have a rotating propeller. Helicopters have a rotary wing that provides both lift and thrust. But animals don't have any rotating parts!

Q: Why flapping wings?
A: I build ornithopters because people are blown away when they see one of these machines, flying high overhead, doing something they thought was utterly impossible. There are practical benefits as well: flapping wings potentially offer improved efficiency, better maneuverability, and reduced noise compared with the rotary-driven airplanes and helicopters. The resemblance to a real bird can also be useful, e.g., for spying or for keeping birds away from airport runways.

Q: Have people ever flown in an ornithopter?
A: Yes. Adalbert Schmid's engine-powered manned ornithopters, flown in 1942 and 1947, were the most successful to date. Several other manned ornithopters have made successful flights.

Q: How does an ornithopter fly?
A: The ornithopter works on the same principle as the airplane. The forward motion through the air allows the wings to deflect air downward, producing lift. The flapping motion of the wings takes the place of a rotating propeller. more

Q: Why doesn't the upstroke cancel out the downstroke?
A: The force produced by a wing depends on the angle the wing is held at, relative to its motion through the air. This is called the "angle of attack". During the upstroke, the angle of attack is reduced, keeping air resistance to a minimum. more

Q: Can I build my own ornithopter?
A: Yes! It is very challenging, but many people build ornithopters as a hobby or school project. There are free plans on this web site, but you will have a better chance of success if you start with one of the flying bird model kits available at BirdKit.com.

Q: Where can I get funding to build a manned ornithopter?
A: I don't know of any funding sources. I can only suggest that if you build a working, radio-controlled model of your proposed design, that will probably make it much easier to get funding.

More About Ornithopters

Learn more about ornithopters by joining the Ornithopter Society.