<p>In 2008 Yves Rossy flies over Bex, Switzerland, borne by jet-powered wings he designed.</p>

In 2008 Yves Rossy flies over Bex, Switzerland, borne by jet-powered wings he designed.

Photograph by Fabrice Coffrini, AFP/Getty Images

If We Only Had Wings

The daring dream of personal flight

Perched on the edge of a cold, windswept dune in North Carolina, I was about to fulfill a dream I shared with Leonardo da Vinci: To fly. The Renaissance genius spent years deciphering the flight of birds and devising personal flying machines. On his deathbed in 1519, Leonardo said one of his regrets was that he had never flown. Five hundred years of innovation since then had produced the hang glider I held above my head, simple and safe enough to be offered as a tourist entertainment. But despite those centuries of adventure and experimentation, personal flight—the ability to bound from Earth like a skylark, swoop like a falcon, and dart as blithely as a hummingbird—remains elusive.

That's not for lack of trying. Many lives have been lost and fortunes squandered pursuing the dream of flight, and even today scientists, inventors, and adventurers persist in the quest.

Leonardo drew hundreds of images of birds on the wing, trying to decode their secrets, and drafted meticulous plans for flying machines not unlike today's gliders and helicopters. But he never figured out the physics of flight. It took more than 300 years and many more failed experiments until Sir George Cayley, a British engineer, determined that flight required lift, propulsion, and control. He built a glider with a curved wing to generate lift. Then he ordered his coachman into it and had farmworkers pull it down a slope until it gained enough speed to fly. Control, alas, was lacking. The craft crashed after flying a few hundred yards. The coachman survived, but reportedly was not amused.

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