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Homo volans
How we learned to take flying jumps
Monday, 25 August 2008

Otto Lilienthal
Otto Lilienthal

Homo Volans; The phrase occurred to me a few months back - and, Googling, I found a number of East European references to Faust Vrancic.  He was brought back to mind yesterday when I read about the exploits of the Swiss airline pilot and adventurer, known as 'Rocket Man', who is now significantly closer to becoming the first jet-powered bird man to cross the Channel - and saw the final programme in Andrew Marr's excellent Britain from Above, in which he took to the skies below a giant parasail.

On the Rocket Man front, as The Times reported yesterday:

"Yves Rossy completed a 10-minute test flight last week with his jet-powered wing strapped to his back. He flew for more than 22 miles, equivalent to a flight from Calais to Dover – the route first flown by Louis Blériot in 1909. The test flight, which had been postponed several times because of engine problems, saw Rossy jump out of a small plane 7,500ft above the town of Bex, in Switzerland. Reaching 180mph, he flew through clear skies to Villeneuve and back. Rossy, wearing a heat-resistant suit similar to those worn by racing drivers, steered by shifting his weight or simply turning his head and shoulders. He deployed two parachutes at 5,000ft and 4,000ft to land at Bex airfield with two litres of fuel left. Rossy used an 8ft carbon-fibre wing powered by four jet engines."

A sad concatenation, with the news of the Madrid air crash cheek-by-jowl with the article on Rossy.

Meanwhile, Marr's parasail reminded me of the early experiments on parachutes and wings, including those by Vrancic.  He apparently collaborated with Tycho Brache and Johannes Keppler, was fluent in at least seven languages and is now best known for his book of inventions in Machinae Novae, published in Venice in 1595. Among his numerous inventions the most famous is the parachute, which he tested in Venice.


 Vrancic's parachute


Whenever I attempt to sum up where we stand with Volans, the image that comes to mind is that of Otto Lilienthal, the early pioneer of aviation, whose exploits inpsired me to do several pen-and-ink drawings back in the early 1970s.

The image of Lilienthal that comes most readily to mind
The image of Lilienthal that comes most readily to my mind
Posted at 11:52:00 a.m. on Monday, 25 August 2008 by John Elkington.


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