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Did Da Vinci Fly?

the Wanderling

A huge metamorphosis in Leonardo's approach to flying machines and flying occurred as he went from the theory of flight to actually attempting flight. In his early designs, if you scroll down to the six graphics below, the platform model for example, seen in the upper left hand corner and the close up of the cockpit detail in the graphic further down, although it looks as though it could possibly work, in reality it was way too heavy. The center graphic, below, with the blue background, shows a later design and the one Leonardo used for his first flight attempt as outlined in the Did Leonardo Da Vinci Fly? linked here and found on the Da Vinci Glider page as well. He soon learned imitating the way birds glide rather than human powered wing motion was the way to go if any substained flight for any extended period was expected. His next step would be not imitating nature at all but designing and building winged gliders exclusively by and for human use in mind. However, any way you cut it, when it comes to flying machines, in the overall scheme of things almost everybody agrees that Leonardo was:






Glider with maneuverable tips

Sensing the difficulties involved in accomplishing the great dream of flying with human-powered machines, Leonardo started to study gliding flight more thoroughly. In the glider designed by him, the flier's position is conceived in such a way as to allow him to balance himself by adequately moving the lower part of his body. The wings, an imitation of the wings of bats and of large birds, are fixed in their innermost section (closest to the person) and mobile in their outer section. The latter in fact can be flexed by the flier by means of a control cable maneuvered through handles. Leonardo had developed this solution after having studied the structure of birds' wings and having observed that the inner part of their wings moved more slowly than the outer part and that, therefore, the function of this part was to sustain rather than to push forward.

Codex Atlanticus, Folio 846 v.

Drawing in sanguine and pen. The folio contains three drawings of articulated wings, operated by means of belts strapped to the legs and body of the flier. Leonardo streamlined the wing structure to its simplest form, with wings attached directly to the flier's body (ornithopter). The note in the margin, added at a later stage, does not refer to the drawings described but contains remarks on the motion of water flowing from the mountains. For a larger and clearer image of the same drawing click the center image of the second row below.

Codex on the Flight of Birds, Folio 11 v.

Modern day tester designed to test the articulated wing.

Codex Atlanticus, folio 1058

In his notes, Leonardo remarks that, with a linen curtain shaped into a pyramid having a base 12 yards (about 7 metres) across and equally deep, if it is stiffly held open, "ognuno si potrÓ gettare da qualsiasi altezza senza alcun rischio" (anyone can jump from no matter what height without any risk whatsoever).

Drawing from Il Codice Atlantico di Leonardo da Vinci nella biblioteca Ambrosiana di Milano, Editore Milano Hoepli 1894-1904. The original drawing is kept in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. See: Da Vinci's Parachute Flies.

More on Leonardo da Vinci's Study of Flight

Flying Machine

Wing on Block

Structure of Wing

A Flying Machine. 1490
Pen and ink
Leonardo intended the aviator
to lie prone, working the wings
with his legs and arms.

A Wing on a
Test Block
Pen and ink

Study of the Structure
of a Wing. 1490
Pen and ink
"Dissect the bat...and on this
model arrange the machine"

Flying Machine 2

Control of a Wing

Flying Machine 3

Drawing of a Flying Machine
Pen and ink
"Observe how the beating of its
wings against the air suffices to
bear up the weight of the eagle"

Study of the Construction
and Control of a Wing
Pen and ink
A batlike wing with
flexible construction.

Drawing of a Flying
Machine with Operator
Pen and ink
"The great bird will
take its flight"

Click pictures for larger images

Did Leonardo's machines really work? Did Da Vinci fly?
(please click)

The Wanderling writes of his childhood attempt at flight following a Da Vinci design:

"My Uncle drew a lifesize outline of the craft on the floor of the studio and from that the machine grew into an over fifteen-foot wingspan glider capable of supporting a man--OR a ten year old boy like myself--in flight. I am not sure what his exact plan for the machine was, but one day without my uncle's knowledge a friend of mine and I hauled it out of the studio and up to the top of the second story apartments across the compound, and hanging on for dear life, launched it."

"Initially the flight played out fairly well, picking up wind under the wings and maintaining the same twostory height advantage for some distance. Halfway across busy Arlington Street though, the craft began slowing and losing forward momentum. It began dropping altitude rapidly, eventually crashing into the porch and partway through the front windows of the house across the way. Other than a few bruises and a wrecked machine, nothing was broken, although as it turned out, my dad wasn't nearly as proud of me as intended. I never forgot the thrill of that flight and carried that thrill and Leonardo's dreams into my adulthood."(see)


Howard Hughes, Da Vinci, and Flying Machines

Cockpit Detail provided through the gracious services of:
INCUNABULA Museum Series


(please click)




Please note the mention of "Arlington Street" in the above quote. As a young boy with several years under the auspices of my Stepmother growing up in, or at least operating out of as a base of operations, the so-called Adams District of Los Angeles, of which encompassed Arlington Street where it crossed Adams, there was an exclusive gated area called Berkeley Square and close by, near the corner of Western and Adams, a huge bricked in compound where some guy had his own private domed observatory. When I went back twenty years later seeking out my infamous two-story high Arlington Street launch site, I discovered that the Santa Monica Freeway, which didn't exist when I was a kid, ran eight or more full lanes wide right through the old neighborhood, completely wiping out Berkeley Square and other houses for blocks around.

"Lavish mansions stood prominently along West Adams Boulevard and nearby Berkeley Square housing the affluent. They were symbols of stateliness and elegance, designed by the best architects of Europe and the US."

Berkeley Square was an exclusive gated neighborhood located in Los Angeles, California, just east of Arlington Street between West 21st and West 24th, bordered on the west by South Gramercy Place. The neighborhood is now gone and covered by the 10 FWY, but from 1920 through to the early mid-1950s was full of dozens of large and expensive mansions. Multi-millionaire Erle P. Halliburton, who founded what eventually became Halliburton Oil, maintained a residence there with his immediate family. His youngest son, David J. Halliburton, who I met and had an abstract impact on my life, was born there.

SEE: BERKELEY SQUARE: Historic Los Angeles

Even though the flight ended not as smoothly as I hoped, primarily because of lack of experience on my part, and as I discovered, perhaps the lack of any sort of real flight control mechanisms, I considered my attempt a success --- especially so because of the distance covered before I lost control. I always felt my mentor and I were able to strengthen our bonds as friends initially because of his interest in flying and my early childhood attempt at manned-flight, re the following from the source so cited:

"Although I never attempted another similar human-powered flight after that, my mentor loved the story, and I think it was an early key to our initial philosophical bond."(source)

There is a slight caveat to my 'never attempted another similar human-powered flight after that' found in the above quote. That caveat circulates around what is called the 'Washoe Zephyr,' sometimes referred to as a 'devil wind.' The Washoe Zephyr occurs on a regular basis on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, with an extremely strong portion on the east side of the paralleling Virginia Range, most notedly around Virginia City. Unlike the typical thermally driven slope-flows which blow upslope during the day and downslope at night, the Washoe Zephyr winds blow down the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada in the afternoon against the local pressure gradient. The Washoe Zephyr figured prominently in my reconsideration of a second flight attempt. For more on that second attempt, please see:


As far as the "lack of flight controls mechanisms," unknown to me or my uncle at the time we were building our flying machine, the design we drew from was based on a Lilienthal model known as Type IX. Little did we know, with the information we had at hand, it had stalled and crashed under similar circumstances when Lilienthal flew it for the first time. See: