Da Vinci’s glider takes wing.

Most folks know Leonardo da Vinci because of his art, but he was also quite the scientist and inventor. Some 500 years ago he sketched out concepts for everything from parachutes to elevators, but few of his ideas were ever built or tested in his lifetime. Some of his concepts were literally hundreds of years ahead of their time, but would they have worked had Da Vinci actually built and tested them?

In at least one case the answer is a definite “maybe.”  In 1510 Da Vinci sketched out his idea for a hang glider. That sketch was part of the Madrid manuscripts that were found in 1996 and the sketch is amazingly similar to modern day gliders. Now former world champion hang glider Angelo D’Arrigo made Da Vinci’s dream of flight a reality by successfully flying a full-scale model of the Piuma, as it was named, in the town of Museo Ideale in Vinci.

Discovery Channel :: Da Vinci’s Flyer Comes to Life

For Leonardo’s invention to take to the air, present day designers and technicians had to give some help. Instead of wood and canvas, they used light and modern materials such as aluminum tubes for the main structure and dacron, a synthetic fiber, for the covering.

“We ended up with a glider that looked like the skeleton of some giant pterodactyl, ” D’Arrigo said.

Despite the total lack of a wing profile, the Piuma had no problems flying in the “wind tunnel” of the car company FIAT, where the aircraft’s capacity for flight was tested and measured.

“At [almost 22 miles] per hour I took off and flew. The weight of my body was totally carried by the Piuma. The test flight lasted two hours, and it has been really exciting. We were able to show that the lack of a proper, light material was the only reason why Leonardo’s machine did not fly. His Piuma would have weighed about [220 pounds], our model weighed only [50 pounds],” D’Arrigo said.

Think about that for a moment. Wilbur and Orville didn’t develop a glider themselves until 1902 some 392 years after Leonardo’s sketch. That glider was a precursor to the powered craft they’re famous for flying a year later on December 17, 1903 which was little more than a glider itself and only flew for 12 seconds and a total of 120 feet on its first attempt. They flew it several more times that day, but the best they managed was 852 feet in 59 seconds.

Da Vinci’s glider could have been the first heavier-than-air craft flown had he been able to overcome the problems with the materials available at the time. Imagine what he could accomplish with today’s technologies and materials at his disposal.

8 thoughts on “Da Vinci’s glider takes wing.

  1. Very Similar thoughts I always wondered in my art studies. Just imagine what Da Vinci could do now! And I am sure anythin gwe could think of he would still blow our minds!

  2. What ifs like this are of little significance. The major contribution that the Wrights provided was flying a craft WITH the materials available in their day. Da Vinci provided nothing that actually advanced aviation, because his ideas never left the concept level, and that is all that can be attributed to him.

  3. Quite true, Valhalla, and I don’t mean to sound like I’m diminishing what the Wright brothers accomplished. I’m just marveling at how ahead of his time Da Vinci managed to be and the possibilities of what could have been had he the persistence of inventors like Edison who just kept trying until he got his stuff to work.

  4. The COOLEST interactive place in France is not Disneyland – it’s DaVinciLand! At Clos-Luce, where he lived out the last years of his life, there is a small museum with all of his inventions created in miniature. However, outside in the park, there are full-scale interactive inventions you can play with including the tank, helicoptor, bilge remover, paddle boats, and the simultanous-shooting cannons. It’s incredibly cool. It really sucks I couldn’t find a link to show you guys.

  5. I looked at the sketch drawn by Da Vinci, but unfortunately they seem to have proven that if you modify his design, it will fly. Look at his method of riding the glider:


    It has little resemblence to the modern hang glider system employed on the “replica”.

    What did work from his idea is the wing, but that isn’t suprising since it is a giant kite, he just scaled it up (and it took modern materials to make that feasible). And just for the record, the first kite flew about 3000 years ago, so it was far from new in Da Vinci’s day.

    Da Vinci was operating in the science fiction genre with his designs. If someone can take his design, use materials from his day, and have it work, then he would have been ahead of his time, but just thinking up ideas that can’t be realize with current technology is something done regularly in scince fiction.

  6. Ok, bit late again!
    Anyway, they’ve built another of daVinci’s glider
    designs for TV, using only materials available to Leonardo.Carrying a pilot it flew to heights of 50ft.Admittedly they had it tethered but that was because in the limited time they didn’t have flighttime to control the excessive lift.
    Have a look at http://www.airways-airsports.com/news.htm
    (not very exhaustive but its got a few pictures)

  7. To Valhalla, the design you show is not the design in question. If you read the article closeley you will realise the actual design is more like the bat wing, or “pterodactyl” skeleton, and the BBC program shown in april this year demonstrates that this design, made with material available in Da Vinci’s time (i.e. timber and canvass etc)actually flies. While DaVinci may have been a bit of a sci-fi “dreamer” he was also an inventor, creating many functional and working innovations that were put to use in his time. While there is a place in society for dreamers, Leonardo Da Vinci was much more than this, and credit should be given where credit is due.

  8. Pingback: Breguet's Pre-1914 ID Challenge #472

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