Manned Ornithopters
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Welcome to the Ornithopter Zone!

Ornithopter (definition): An ornithopter is a manned aircraft or an unmanned flying machine in which the driving airfoils have a flapping, reciprocating, or oscillating motion, instead of the rotary motion used in airplanes and helicopters.

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New Ptera Software for Flapping Wing Flight

Ptera software, developed by Cameron Urban, is a fast, easy-to-use, and open-source package for analyzing flapping-wing flight. Visit our Design Tools page for more info.

How to Build an Ornithopter

There are two common types of ornithopters. The simplest models are powered by winding up a rubber band. These ornithopters are the least expensive to build, and they can be flown indoors. The rubber-band-powered ornithopters are great for a school competition to see who can get the longest flight time. Building and flying these ornithopters is a great way for kids to learn about science and how to work as a team. This is also the recommended starting point for adults.

Rubber Band
Powered Ornithopter

Start simple. For your first ornithopter, begin by constructing a proven design from the Ornithopter Zone's Freebird Plans. Like the name says, it's free.

Using the right materials is important. There are kits and online tutorials where you build an "ornithopter" from things you find around the house or heavy plastic and bamboo. Many of them will not fly, after all of your hard work.

Some people don't want to start with a rubber-band-powered ornithopter, because it doesn't seem technologically advanced. But the rubber-powered ornithopter will teach you important concepts and skills that you will find useful when you start building more complex ornithopters. You will progress more rapidly by having this foundation. The rubber-powered ornithopter itself has become highly developed, with some very unique designs and advanced concepts.

Electric RC Ornithopter
As you progress, read through the how to section of this web site, for more information on ornithopter design and construction techniques. You will progress more quickly if you study what has been successful in the past.

The second type of ornithopter is powered by an electric motor. Electric ornithopters are more difficult to design and build. These ornithopters range from 10 cm wingspan "micro air vehicles" to the size of an eagle. They are often radio controlled, and they can carry payloads such as cameras. The first challenge is constructing a reliable gearbox and flapping mechanism that will provide enough power for your ornithopter to fly. Once you have accomplished that, you will find that getting an ornithopter to steer and turn effectively can be equally difficult. As you overcome each of the challenges that your ornithopter can present, you will advance your knowledge of building techniques, electronics, and the principles of flight.

How Ornithopters Got Started

The idea of the ornithopter comes from ancient times. Three thousand years ago, Assyrian stone carvings depicted God riding in an ornithopter. The Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus describes two men building wings which they used to escape from the labyrinth. In 875 AD, Abbas ibn Firnas in Spain built an ornithopter/glider with which he made the first successful gliding flight by a human.

In the 1870s the focal point for the development of aviation was in Paris. Unmanned aircraft were built, including ornithopters, as a stepping stone to the development of manned flight. The rubber-band-powered ornithopters developed then form the basis for modern designs that are built by students and hobbyists today.

Steam and internal combustion engines were then used, with some great advancements taking place in Germany prior to World War II. Alexander Lippisch, who is also known for developing the Me 163 Komet rocket-powered fighter, led a team of young researchers who perfected the design of engine-powered, unmanned ornithopters, achieving successful flights up to 16 minutes. Building on that work, in 1942, Adalbert Schmid made the first successful flight of a powered, manned ornithopter. Although there have been a few others, Schmid's manned ornithopter still stands as the most successful to date.

The first radio-controlled ornithopter was built by Percival Spencer in 1960. He also built a series of more bird-shaped, engine-powered ornithopters. During the 1990s, Spencer's design was adapted for electric power and came to greatly influence the design of most RC ornithopters to this day. Read more ornithopter history.

Why Build Ornithopters?

Education. Students can build ornithopters for a school project. They can learn about engineering design, physics, math, electronics, and more!


Ornithopters are a great hobby for those who enjoy the challenge of coming up with their own designs. There are also ready-made toy ornithopters if you just want to fly one.


You can put a camera on board your ornithopter to gain a first-person perspective and see what it would be like to fly like a bird!


Ornithopters are used at airports to chase birds away. If a plane runs into birds, that can damage the engines, so keeping birds away is an important part of airport safety.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the definition of an "ornithopter"?

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! How is it different from an airplane or helicopter? Airplanes have a rotating propeller. Helicopters have a rotary wing that provides both lift and thrust. Those machines are driven by rotating airfoils. Instead of rotation, the ornithopter wing imitates the reciprocating motion of a bird's wing.

The flapping wings of the ornithopter don't have to supply all of the lift. Even in real birds, the body and tail provide a significant portion of the total lift.

Ornithopter (simple definition): An ornithopter is a device that flies by flapping wings.

Ornithopter (technical definition): An ornithopter is a manned aircraft or an unmanned flying machine in which the driving airfoils have a flapping, reciprocating, or oscillating motion, instead of the rotary motion used in airplanes and helicopters.

Who invented the ornithopter?
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 about 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.

Why flapping wings?
Many people like to build and fly ornithopters, just because ornithopters are amazing! 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 for certain missions such as spying or for keeping birds away from airport runways.

Have people ever flown in an ornithopter?
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.

How does an ornithopter fly?
Find out in the "how to" section of this web site.

Why doesn't the upstroke cancel out the downstroke?
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 adjusted so that the wing isn't pushing down. more

Can I build my own ornithopter?
Yes! Many people build ornithopters as a hobby or school project. There are free plans on this web site.