Personal flight—the ability to fly like a bird—remains elusive despite those centuries of adventure and experimentation. That’s not for lack of trying. Over the centuries many inventors, adventurers and scientists have been persistently pursuing the dream of human flight.
Myth of Icarus
One of the earliest records of this dream is perhaps the Greek myth of Icarus.
Icarus is a character in Greek myths. He was the son of Daedalus a brilliant (human) architect in Greek mythology. The story goes that Daedalus was so talented he was imprisoned along with his son and forced to work for the mythical King Minos of Crete. Out of wax and feathers he fashioned wings for both him and Icarus to escape. Before they departed he warned Icarus to stay close to him and not go to near the sun. Unfortunately being a vibrant young man Icarus couldn’t help himself and flew higher and higher until his wings melted and he fell to his death.
17th-century relief depicting the fall of Icarus, with a Cretan labyrinth bottom right (Musée Antoine Vivenel)
Flying Machines of Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance genius spent years deciphering the flight of birds and devising personal flying machines. On his deathbed in 1519, Leonardo said one of his regrets was that he had never flown. Leonardo drew hundreds of images of birds on the wing, trying to decode their secrets, and drafted meticulous plans for flying machines not unlike today’s gliders and helicopters. But he never figured out the physics of flight.
Leonardo daVinci , Study of the Construction and Control of a Wing [1490, Pen and ink ]
For much of his life, Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated by the phenomenon of flight, producing many studies of the flight of birds, including his c. 1505 Codex on the Flight of Birds, as well as plans for several flying machines, including a light hang glider and a machine resembling a helicopter. The British television station Channel Four commissioned a documentary Leonardo’s Dream Machines, for broadcast in 2003. Leonardo’s machines were built and tested according to his original designs. Some of those designs proved a success, whilst others fared less well when practically tested.
Five hundred years of innovation since then had produced the hang glider, simple and safe enough to use by anyone.
Hang gliders have been around since the the 1800′s, though the concepts of flight were not fully understood then, and very few, if any successful flights were made. They began to be practically used around the 1950′s as a branch off of American aerospace research. These first designs were known as parawings, and were developed by Francis and Gertrude Rogallo. Early gliders had wooden or bamboo frames and polythene sails, which is primitive when compared to the new materials used in today’s gliders, which will be discussed in further detail later. These gliders intrigued people then just as they do today because the concept of free flight is often an exciting idea. Nearly everyone (except those with an intense fear of heights) have dreamed at one time or another of being able to soar above the earth. Hang gliding is about the closest we can come to free flight, no motor or source of thrust involved, only you and the open sky.
Human Powered Aircraft
The Gossamer Albatross was a human-powered aircraft built by American aeronautical engineer Dr. Paul B. MacCready’s AeroVironment. On June 12, 1979 it completed a successful crossing of the English Channel to win the second Kremer prize.
The aircraft was designed and built by a team led by Paul B. MacCready, a noted US aeronautics engineer, designer, and world soaring champion. Gossamer Albatross was his second human-powered aircraft, the first being the Gossamer Condor, which had won the first Kremer prize on August 23, 1977 by completing a mile-long figure-eight course. The second Kremer challenge was then announced as a flight across the Channel recalling Louis Blériot’s crossing of 1909. The Albatross was powered using pedals to drive a large two-bladed propeller. Piloted by amateur cyclist Bryan Allen, it completed the 35.8 km (22.2 mi) crossing in 2 hours and 49 minutes, achieving a top speed of 29 km/h (18 mph) and an average altitude of 1.5 metres (5 ft).
Wing-suit Flying and Base Jumping
Uncounted numbers of “birdmen” have died over the centuries after leaping from tower or cliff, not realizing they could never flap homemade wings hard or fast enough to stay aloft. Their modern heirs, BASE jumpers, leap from buildings, cliffs, and bridges, plunge for a few exhilarating moments, then throw out a parachute to slow their fall. Some don wing suits, with baffled fabric wings that generate enough lift to propel the wearer forward at up to 160 miles an hour while falling. J. T. Holmes of Squaw Valley, California, who has made about a thousand wing-suit jumps, says, “It’s as close as human beings can get to flying like a bird.” It’s also extraordinarily dangerous: About 12 BASE jumpers die each year. Hitting the mountain while free-falling or after the parachute deploys is a common cause.
One of the most successful Base Jumpers in the world is Jeb Corliss. In the movie below, Jeb Corliss and Roberta Mancino share their perspective into the world of proximity wingsuit flying and base jumping with their GoPro cameras. Watch to see onboard footage and personal interviews as they tell their stories of love and near death experiences.
Jeb Corliss. Multiple camera angle flying the crack. I already know the exit was horrible but the flight made up for it :
The “Rocket Man”
Rocket Man at LA Olympic (1984)
Inventors continue to try to bring the comic book fantasy of personal jet flight to life, and Yves Rossy has come closest. This Swiss pilot flings himself out of an aircraft wearing a six-foot-wide carbon-fiber wing of his own invention, powered by four tiny jet engines.
Photograph by Fabrice Coffrini, AFP/Getty Images
In May (2011), Rossy leaped from a helicopter above the Grand Canyon and flew eight minutes before parachuting to Earth. The jets give him powered ascent and the oomph to do loops.
That freedom doesn’t come easy; it took Rossy years to master his tiny craft. “I steer myself in space with only my body,” he explains. “To go left, I turn my shoulders left, and that’s it!” He says it’s like parachuting with a wing suit, whose panels between the body and limbs slow a skydiver’s fall, but with more liberty. “It’s awesome, it’s great, it’s fantastic!”
PS Highest, Fastest and Longest Skydive
Joseph William Kittinger II (born July 27, 1928) is a former Command Pilot and career military officer in the United States Air Force. He is most famous for his participation in Project Manhigh and Project Excelsior, holding the records for having the highest, fastest and longest skydive, from a height greater than 31 km,and as being the first man to make a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a gas balloon. Serving as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, he was shot down and spent 11 months in a North Vietnamese prison.
One Giant Step
by James M. Clash, FORBES.COM
Joe Kittinger is not a household aviation name like Neil Armstrong or Chuck Yeager. But what he did for the U. S. space program is comparable. On Aug. 16, 1960, as research for the then-fledgling U. S. space program, Air Force Captain Joseph Kittinger rode a helium balloon to the edge of space, 102,800 feet above the earth, a feat in itself.
Then, wearing just a thin pressure suit and breathing supplemental oxygen, he leaned over the cramped confines of his gondola and jumped–into the 110-degree-below-zero, near-vacuum of space. Within seconds his body accelerated to 714mph in the thin air, breaking the sound barrier.
After free-falling for more than four and a half minutes, slowed finally by friction from the heavier air below, he felt his parachute open at 14,000 feet, and he coasted gently down to the New Mexico desert floor.
Kittinger’s feat showed scientists that astronauts could survive the harshness of space with just a pressure suit and that man could eject from aircraft at extreme altitudes and survive.
Upon Kittinger’s return to base, a congratulatory telegram was waiting from the Mercury seven astronauts–including Alan Shepard and John Glenn.
More than four decades later Kittinger’s two world records–the highest parachute jump, and the only man to break the sound barrier without an aircraft and live–still stand. We decided to visit the retired colonel and Aviation Hall of Famer, now 75, at his home in Altamonte Springs, Florida, to recall his historic jump.
FORBES GLOBAL: Take us back to New Mexico and Aug. 16, 1960.
Joe Kittinger: We got up at 2 a. m. to start filling the helium balloon. At sea level, it was 35 to 40 feet wide and 200 feet high; at altitude, due to the low air pressure, it expanded to 25 stories in width, and still was 20 stories high! At 4 a. m. I began breathing pure oxygen for two hours. That’s how long it takes to remove all the nitrogen from your blood so you don’t get the bends going so high so fast. Then it was a lengthy dress procedure layering warm clothing under my pressure suit. They kept me in air-conditioning until it was time to launch because we were in the desert and I wasn’t supposed to sweat. If I did, my clothes would freeze on the way up.
FORBES GLOBAL: How was your ascent?
Joe Kittinger: It took an hour and a half to get to altitude. It was cold. At 40,000 feet, the glove on my right hand hadn’t inflated. I knew that if I radioed my doctor, he would abort the flight. If that happened, I knew I might never get another chance because there were lots of people who didn¹t want this test to happen. I took a calculated risk, that I might lose use of my right hand. It quickly swelled up, and I did lose use for the duration of the flight. But the rest of the pressure suit worked. When I reached 102,800 feet, maximum altitude, I wasn’t quite over the target. So I drifted for 11 minutes. The winds were out of the east.
FORBES GLOBAL: What’s it look like from so high up?
Joe Kittinger: You can see about 400 miles in every direction. The formula is 1.25 x the sq. root of the altitude in thousands of feet. (The square root of 102,000 ft is 319 X 1.25 = 399 miles). The most fascinating thing is that it’s just black overhead–the transition from normal blue to black is very stark. You can’t see stars because there’s a lot of glare from the sun, so your pupils are too small. I was struck with the beauty of it. But I was also struck by how hostile it is: more than 100 degrees below zero, no air. If my protection suit failed, I would be dead in a few seconds. Blood actually boils above 62, 000 feet.
I went through my 46-step checklist, disconnected from the balloon¹s power supply and lost all communication with the ground. I was totally under power from the kit on my back. When everything was done, I stood up, turned around to the door, took one final look out and said a silent prayer: “Lord, take care of me now.” Then I just jumped over the side.
FORBES GLOBAL: What were you thinking as you took that step?
Joe Kittinger: It’s the beginning of a test. I had gone through simulations many times–more than 100. I rolled over and looked up, and there was the balloon just roaring into space. I realized that the balloon wasn’t roaring into space; I was going down at a fantastic rate! At about 90,000 feet, I reached 714mph.
The altimeter on my wrist was unwinding very rapidly. But there was no sense of speed. Where you determine speed is visual–if you see something go flashing by. But nothing flashes by 20 miles up–there are no signposts there, and you are way above any clouds. When the chute opened, the rest of the jump was anticlimactic because everything had worked perfectly. I landed 12 or 13 minutes later, and there was my crew waiting. We were elated.
FORBES GLOBAL: How about your right hand?
It hurt–there was quite a bit of swelling and the blood pressure in my arm was high. But that went away in a few days, and I regained full use of my hand.
FORBES GLOBAL: What about attempts to break your record?
Joe Kittinger: We did it for air crews and astronauts–for the learning, not to set a record.
They will be going up as skydivers. Somebody will beat it someday. Records are made to be broken. And I’ll be elated. But I’ll also be concerned that they’re properly trained. If they’re not, they’re taking a heck of a risk.
- If We Only Had Wings – The daring dream of personal flight: