An ornithopter (from Greek ornis, ornith- “bird” and pteron “wing”) is an aircraft that flies by flapping its wings. This design is by Leonardo Da Vinci who studied the flight of birds.
Designers tried to imitate the flapping-wing flight of some flying animals. Can you think of some animals who can fly?
There are some birds who cannot fly. Can you think of any of them?
Would you like to be able to fly?
Where would you go first?
Cultural Heritage Background
Flying is probably humanity’s oldest dream. However, not all attempts have been successful.
In Greek mythology, for example, Daedalus and his son Icarus tried to fly using wax wings. Daedalus was an architect, the builder of the labyrinth of Crete, and the husband of a slave girl called Naucrae. Icarus was held captive with Daedalus on the island of Crete by the island’s king, Minos.
Daedalus decided to escape the island in secret. However, since Minos controlled the waters and the land, Daedalus set to work to make wings for himself and his son, Icarus. He arranged feathers according to their size and attached them to each other with a cord and beeswax. Then he gave each whole wing a smooth curvature like a bird’s.
When he had finished his work, Daedalus flapped his wings and found himself in the air. He then equipped his son in the same way and taught him how to fly. When they were ready to take off, Daedalus gave Icarus some advice. Not to fly too high because the heat of the sun would melt the wax, nor to fly too low because the sea foam would wet the wings and make them too heavy to fly.
They passed some Mediterranean islands, and the boy began to ascend. The hot sun softened the wax that held the feathers together and they fell away. Icarus flapped his arms, but there were not enough feathers left to hold him in the air, and he fell into the sea. His father wept and regretted his art. He called the land near the place in the sea where Icarus had fallen Icaria, in memory of his son.
Listen to the fragment and answer the questions:
The first European flight was made by Louis Charles Joseph Blériot, who was a French aviator, inventor, and engineer. He was also the first person to make a working, powered, piloted monoplane. In 1909 he became world-famous for making the first aeroplane flight across the English Channel, winning a £1,000 prize
Read the story
The creator of this magnificent work of art is Henri Van Herwegen, better known as Panamarenko. He was a Belgian artist who died in 2019 and is famous for his constructions for flying. In 1969, Panamarenko began work on “The Aeromodeller”, the largest airship that he would ever build and an icon in his career. The construction of this huge Zeppelin would last until 1971. The artist, who was interested in the myth of Icarus, set out in search of freedom and longed to explore. The world was his playing field, and the possibilities were infinite. These ideas were reflected in “The Aeromodeller”, which would allow the artist to move freely in the sky. The Zeppelin consists of three parts. First of all, a massive, thirty-metre-long balloon. Second, two aircraft engines to steer the airship. And last a wicker gondola, which is furnished as a living space.
On Saturday, 26 June 1971, at 11 a.m., he was allowed to launch his now world-famous Aeromodeller in a meadow in Balen. Panamarenko wanted to travel from Balen to Arnhem in the Netherlands on his first flight, to participate in an art event there. Just before everything was ready, he received a telegram from the Netherlands telling him that he was not allowed to enter Dutch airspace. However, Panamarenko did not give up. Panamarenko’s team rolled out the polyester cover on the meadow where cows were grazing. Moments later, a lorry arrived with 65,000 litres of hydrogen gas. After several hours of tapping, the balloon finally came to life and began to dance happily. But suddenly the wind unexpectedly picked up, turning the fragile “Aeromodeller” into a toy. The wind became too strong, and the operation was aborted.
Panamarenko’s attempts to test “The Aeromodeller” failed. Whether it could ever fly remains ambiguous, but it is because of this ambiguity that the work has a poetic dimension. Panamarenko succeeds in exploring the unknown, in this case airspace, just by suggesting that it is possible.
The history of humanity is full of flying attempts which eventually developed into the present-day aviation industry.
In 1485, Leonardo da Vinci began studying the flight of birds. He realized that humans were too heavy, and not strong enough, to fly using wings simply attached to their arms. He therefore sketched a device in which the aviator lies down on a plank. He worked on two large membrane wings using hand levers, foot pedals, and a system of pulleys.
Hundreds of years later, Otto Lilienthal was born in 1847 in Germany. He is considered one of the pioneers of aviation history. For years, together with his brother Gustav, he observed the flight of birds until he realised that imitating nature was not enough. He made experiments with flat and curved surfaces exposed to the wind, and discovered how curvature affects lift. Using detailed drawings and complex mathematical formulas on length and weight, Otto Lilienthal calculated how best to design a glider that was capable of flying.
From 1894, Lilienthal began flying his monoplane gliding device, which he named Normalsegelapparat (“normal elevation apparatus”). This was his most advanced construction. The Normalsegelapparat had a wingspan of 6.7 metres and a wing area of 13 square metres. Taking off from the slopes of the Rhinow Mountains, Lilienthal made flights during which he could glide up to 250 metres. His invention caused a great sensation.
Lilienthal produced additional models of his Normalsegelapparat and sold them in Germany and other countries. However, he was not able to enjoy his fame for long. On 9 August 1896, he crashed from a height of 15 metres during a test flight and died the next day at the age of 48.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Wright Brothers developed the first aeroplane. The Wright Flyer made the first sustained flight by a manned heavier-than-air powered and controlled aircraft on 17 December 1903 in North Carolina. Taking turns, the Wrights made four brief, low-altitude flights that day. The flight paths were all essentially straight; turns were not attempted. Each flight ended in a bumpy and unintended landing. The last flight, by Wilbur, covered 260 metres in 59 seconds. This is much longer than each of the three previous flights of 37, 53 and 61 metres in 12, 12 and 15 seconds respectively. The fourth flight’s landing broke the front elevator supports, which the Wrights hoped to repair for a possible 6 km flight. However, they didn’t succeed, and the Wright Flyer never flew again.
- The voladores are “flying men”. Learn more about their UNESCO heritage ritual ceremony:
- See more of Panamerenko’s work (Dutch-language site):
- Make and fly a kite, using these instructions:
- If you want to learn more about conjunctions (linking words) go to
- If you want more information and practice using the passive voice, look here:
Extra resources for learners
- Links to 4 Elements in Arts Resource Library
- Read more about the history of flight, and see pictures of Leonardo’s, Lilienthal’s and the Wright brothers’ aircraft
- If you want to learn about important moments in the history of flight, read