AIRDATE: Monday 10 February 2003
Could Man have flown 400 years before the Wright Brothers’ historic flight? Channel 4 assembled a team of world-class experts to build a full-scale model from designs left by Leonardo da Vinci and persuaded a world champion hang glider to try to fly it.
At the same time, another group constructed a giant crossbow that would have been the ‘super gun’ of its day. Both machines had to use only materials available to Leonardo and they had just three months to complete the task. In last week’s programme, the crossbow team encountered frustration and disaster at every turn, from poor materials to disagreement on the final design. It all culminated in a test firing that would have left any Renaissance soldier far from terrified.
Meanwhile, the glider was progressing in leaps and bounds, with a working model and a full-size frame constructed, plus the pilot, Judy Leden, desperate to get on with risking her neck. Things look even more promising when Steve Roberts and Martin Kimm, who are constructing the glider, discover a tiny marking on the original Leonardo sketch that proves that the great artist understood aerodynamics even more profoundly than they had thought. The single word ‘Panot’ on the design (meaning ‘fabric’) shows that cloth completely covered the bird-like wings and will provide crucial lift to the glider.
This programme also examines Leonardo’s remarkably advanced insight into the workings of the human body and its anatomy. Thousands of surviving pages of notes describe ideas that are often cutting-edge, even in the 21st Century. Leading heart surgeon, Francis Wells, is an expert in heart valve replacement. He believes that the 16th Century artist understood the form and function of the heart in a way that modern medicine has only just managed. Leonardo even created models of the heart, blowing the glass himself, to understand the working of the valves and the passage of the blood through the organ as vortices – something that was only re-discovered in the last 20 years using hi-tech imaging equipment. He even designed a mechanical human from his studies.
Back at the crossbow drawing board, team leader Dave Hepworth first beefs up the bow arms to get more power using metal straps and then strips the designs back to get closer to Leonardo’s plans. As judgement day approaches on the two reconstructions, the teams face different challenges. After all the frustrations and setbacks, Dave is ready for a final test of the giant crossbow – and whatever the risks to the machine, he is determined to go full out to prove that Leonardo’s weapon of war wasn’t just a flight of fancy.
The glider is confounding all expectations with its beauty and flying potential, but the crucial test is whether pilot Judy can control it without risking serious injury. And there’s only one way to find that out, so Judy bravely clambers aboard for the inaugural flight of Leonardo’s flying machine – a mere 500 years after it was designed.