For a few magnificent seconds, they fufilled one of humankind's oldest dreams: to fly like a bird

You can ask Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson how they did it. How’d they make the first-ever human-powered ornithopter—a plane that flies like a bird? The two University of Toronto engineering grad students will even tell you. (It involves a lot of differential calculus.) But honestly, the “how” is way less interesting than the “why.”

Because it was an unfulfilled dream of Leonardo da Vinci. Because it pushed the work of their professor and mentor James DeLaurier—inventor of the world’s first successful engine-powered ornithopter—that final glorious step. Because it was the ultimate experiment in biomimicry: exploiting a design that took nature thousands of generations of evolution to perfect.

And here is one other motivator that should not be discounted: “We had a private list of people who thought it was impossible,” says Reichert, laughing.

Robertson, who was born in Toronto but grew up in Philadelphia, was the aeronautical engineer on the project. Reichert, originally from Saskatchewan, was chief aerodynamic engineer and project manager. (“I know how to get things done,” Reichert says, “and Cam knows how to get things done right.”) Together they meshed like gears, and created Snowbird.

She has the wingspan of a Boeing 737 and weighs not much more than a heavy suitcase. Since crashing during testing was a virtual certainty, the guys didn’t feel right about recruiting a pilot. So, Reichert took the job. He cut weight like a wrestler. He trained his legs like a sprint cyclist. And last August 2, on an airstrip in Tottenham, Ontario, he hopped in the cockpit for the ultimate pedal-power test.

A tow plane released Snowbird and, as the ground crew cheered, her carbon-fibre wings, flapping lyrically, kept her aloft and holding altitude. For how long? Let’s just say deep-vein thrombosis wasn’t a risk for the passenger. Okay, 19.3 seconds. But that was long enough to prove the principle—Snowbird did not glide, she flew—and convince the representative from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale to sign the flight into the record books.

Human-powered ornithopters aren’t going to be produced en masse any time soon—“having a 30-metre wing kind of prevents you from commuting with it,” says Reichert. But that’s not the point. At heart, the project was a thought experiment about energy.

“Human power is a really cool design problem, because your power source is limited,” Reichert says. “If you can train engineers to think like that—I want to go faster but I’m not allowed to use more energy—it’ll really be interesting. Right now the starting point for most design problems is profit.”

Knowing what they know now, starting over from scratch, Reichert thinks he and Robertson could build a human-powered ornithopter that could stay aloft for up to an hour. But different challenges beckon, like using their design chops to make record-breakingly fast human-powered wheeled vehicles. Or chasing the Sikorsky Prize for the world’s first successful flight of a human-powered helicopter.

Leonardo da Vinci would approve.

This profile is part of our Top 30 under 30 feature.