TIMELINE: The History of Human-Powered Flight Since Leonardo Da Vinci drew up plans for an ornithopter in 1488, hundreds of engineers and inventors have pursued the dream of flight. A handful have succeeded.
NPR logo TIMELINE: The History of Human-Powered Flight

TIMELINE: The History of Human-Powered Flight

Ever since Leonardo Da Vinci sketched plans for a bird-like machine in one of his notebooks, hundreds of inventors have tried to engineer their way into the skies. But flying under human power — and human power alone — isn't an easy task.

In 1894 Octave Chanute published a volume called "Progress In Flying." A more appropriate title would have been "Lack Of Progress In Flying." The book's detailed list of failed flying machines – from Da Vinci's famous flapping ornithopter to the fins an overconfident French nobleman strapped to his arms and legs – is very humorous. The book's detailed list of injuries suffered by would-be aviators is not.

Many inventors and engineers (including Chanute himself) ignored this book's clear but unstated warning. In a triumph of human will (or obstinacy ... or just plain denial) they kept trying to get off the ground under their own steam. And they kept failing.

Finally, in 1977, men flew. No longer the short hops and unsatisfying glides of previous decades – this was real flight! Super light craft — with human beings huffing and puffing in the cockpit — could bank and turn like real aircraft, cross the English Channel, and race for top speeds.

In 1980, at the height of this human-powered fervor, the American Helicopter Society announced the Sikorsky Prize - named after helicopter pioneer Igor Sikorsky.

It was nearly a decade before a human-powered helicopter – CalPoly's Da Vinci III – even got off the ground. That first flight lasted 8 seconds. Five years later another craft stayed up for 20 seconds, with a maximum height of just 8 inches. For three decades, these were the only attempts. Now, two teams of young engineers are battling for the prize.