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.
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.