Manned Ornithopters
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The Ornithopter Society

Founded in 1984, The Ornithopter Society launched the modern resurgence of flapping wing aircraft. Ornithopter Society publications, including the Ornithopter Design Manual, Flapping Wings newsletter, and online content, provide the ultimate resource for those seeking to build ornithopters or those interested in the history and culture of this unique phenomenon.

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.

Download the Ornithopter Design Manual

We are making the Ornithopter Design Manual available for free download. The Ornithopter Design Manual, written by Patrick Deshaye and Nathan Chronister, offers the only comprehensive treatment of ornithopter design and construction techniques. You can also download the Flapper Facts and Flapping Wings newsletters from 1984 through 2002.

Ornithopter Design Manual (PDF)
Flapping Wings Newsletter (1984-2002)

You can visit the How To section of this web site to get a quick introduction to building your own ornithopters. Then read the Ornithopter Design Manual and newsletters when you want to learn more. If you find these resources helpful, please consider supporting the work of the Ornithopter Society. Your small donation helps cover the cost of maintaining and updating the website, while most of the work to bring you the site is done on a voluntary basis.

Why Build Ornithopters?

People will often ask what ornithopters are used for. Above any other purpose, ornithopters are a great vehicle for learning. For high school studionts, ornithopters are a great way to learn about engineering, physics, math, electronics, and more! At the university level, ornithopters are part of the advanced research into aerodynamics, bird flight, and robotics. Individual hobbyists also enjoy learning new skills as they rise to the challenge of flapping wing flight!

Education. Students can build ornithopters for a school project. They can learn about engineering, 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.

Some other applications for ornithopters have been implemented. Like other types of radio controlled aircraft, ornithopters can be used to carry cameras. Ornithopters can be made to look like a real bird or insect, so they could be used for covert spying. Ornithopters have also been used in studies of wildlife where an aircraft resembling a real bird was needed. Another application that has been tested is the use of ornithopters to chase birds away from airports. Bird control specialists use a variety of methods to keep birds away from runways. If an airplane runs into birds, it can receive damage causing it to crash, so this is an important part of airline safety.

Of course, there has been some effort to develop ornithopters as a type of manned aircraft. Adalbert Schmid, who in 1942 built the first successful manned ornithopter, believed that flapping wings would be more fuel-efficient than airplanes. Others observed the high maneuverability of birds and thought that manned ornithopters could emulate that ability. Regardless of whether that is true, there are many people who just want to have the experience of flying like a bird.

How Ornithopters Got Started

The idea of the ornithopter came from ancient times. Three thousand years ago, Assyrian stone carvings depicted God riding in an ornithopter. The Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus tells of two men who built wings in order to escape from a labyrinth. In 875 AD, Abbas ibn Firnas in Spain constructed a bird-inspired aircraft, with which he made the first 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 formed 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 an engine-powered, manned ornithopter. Although there have been a few others, Schmid's manned ornithopter still stands as the most successful to this day.

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 our modern RC ornithopters. Read more ornithopter history.


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.

Did Leonardo da Vinci invent 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 was in 1942.

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?
It's complicated, so 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 on the ornithopter. 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. Also check out the Ornithopter Design Manual.