Complex Things in Simple Words | What kind of aircraft was invented by Leonardo da Vinci

April 15 marks the 572nd anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s birth. He was not only an outstanding artist, but also a scientist and inventor. Many people generally consider him a man from the future. In fact, of course, this is not the case. However, the aircraft created by him really deserve to look at them in more detail.

Leonardo da Vinci

1. Why don’t people fly like birds?

The first aircraft to be remembered in connection with Leonardo da Vinci is an ornithopter. Now this word is popular thanks to Denis Villeneuve’s film Dune, however, this is not a fantastic, but a very real concept, which for several centuries remained the main idea of how a person can learn to fly. 

Leonardo da Vinci came up with the idea of an ornithopter while watching birds. Indeed, if birds can fly by flapping their wings, then what prevents a man-made machine from doing this? The device of the genius Italian inventor remained in the drawings. Subsequently, people repeatedly tried to implement it, but even the best models could not fly more than a few hundred meters.

In theory, flapping wing flight allows you to use energy more efficiently than a fixed-wing aircraft or helicopter. In practice, an adult of average weight will only have enough muscle strength for a few minutes of flight. Small gasoline or electric motors could solve this problem, but there is another problem with them. With an increase in the length of the wing, the force that must be transferred to it to carry out movement at some point exceeds the mechanical strength of the material. And any drive mechanism sticking above its surface exerts significant aerodynamic resistance. Therefore, constructing flapping wing drones is a very real, albeit difficult task. But a man is not destined to fly like a bird.

2. Who invented the hang glider?

Although the ornithopters never got out of the experimental stage, this does not mean that Leonardo’s thoughts about flight turned out to be completely wrong. Da Vinci also worked on the concept of a fixed-wing vehicle.

In particular, a hang glider can be found among his drawings, although in fact similar ideas were expressed even earlier. For the first time, the prototype of an ultralight glider in the form of a fabric-covered frame was tested by the German inventor Otto Lilienthal at the end of the XIX century. And already in the 1950s, a modern design familiar to us appeared.

3. Does Leonardo’s parachute work?

Besides the hang glider, Leonardo da Vinci invented a parachute. At first glance, the pyramid-shaped structure he painted of four starched cloths and blocks forming a frame at the bottom seems too clumsy. However, in fact, its size more or less corresponds to modern models and, according to calculations, it is quite capable of stopping a person falling from any height.

In 2008, a parachute created according to da Vinci’s drawings was launched from a height of 650 m. According to the tester, this descent itself turned out to be quite safe. But the design, invented several centuries ago, does not allow for free flight control, so all modern models use a different shape. 

4. What prevents the Leonardo helicopter from flying?

One of the most famous inventions attributed to Leonardo da Vinci is the helicopter. Actually, there is a drawing of an amazing device with an open platform and a helical surface wrapped around a vertical mast in his documents. 

In fact, it is a kind of sail — a fabric stretched over a frame. Leonardo da Vinci correctly noted that if you rotate it fast enough, it will create lift. He even described that he had built several small models, but did not talk about the results of their testing.

In fact, Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter cannot fly fully. The fact is that the rotation of the screw in one direction causes the platform to rotate in the other. For the first time, designers of the early twentieth century, including Ihor Sikorskyi from Kyiv, found this out. To get rid of this effect, there should be a second screw, which is usually placed on the tail of the aircraft.

5. Did Leonardo da Vinci design spacecraft?

Leonardo da Vinci never designed a spacecraft. In his time, the ideas of space flight had already been expressed, but he did not do it. Although at the same time he fully supported the heliocentric model of the world, which was not only progressive at that time, but also quite dangerous.

However, Leonardo still has an invention project, without which space exploration is now impossible. We are talking about a spacesuit. In the original, this sealed suit with air supply through tubes was developed for underwater work, including for sabotage against enemy ships. However, it already had all the basic elements used by astronauts outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

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