How to Build an Ornithopter

Updated November 21, 2016

An ornithopter is an aeroplane that flies by flapping its wings. Leonardo da Vinci had plans for one back in the 1400s, but the first ornithopters weren't built until the 1870s. They still beat the Wright Brothers by more than 30 years. By 1942, ornithopters had been built that could carry a human being. Although they've never really "taken off" for human flight, enthusiasts say ornithopters could potentially fly with less fuel and more maneuverability than either regular aeroplanes or helicopters. Rubberband-powered orhithopter models are a fascinating way to learn more about how birds and insects fly. Start with one of the model kits available; once you learn the basics, you can try a more advanced model or create your own ornithopter using plans available online.

Purchase an ornithopter model kit (see Resources below).

Trace tail and wing shapes onto tissue paper, and cut them out.

Assemble the fuselage (body) from provided balsa wood pieces and epoxy or cyano-acrylic glue (such as Super Glue).

Create the crank assembly, bending wire as indicated in plans; attach assembly to fuselage.

Attach the wing hinges to the fuselage.

Attach the tail piece to the tail wire, using epoxy, and the tail wire to the fuselage; support it so it will dry in the correct position.

Assemble the wings using tissue paper over a framework, using diluted white glue; reinforce with additional strips of tissue paper. Again, support the structure so they will dry in correct position.

Thread the wing wires into flapping mechanism as indicated in the plans.

Let everything dry thoroughly.


To fly your model, pick a clear, open space with as little wind as possible (inside a school gymnasium is perfect), bend the ornithopter's tail up about 10 degrees. Double a rubber band and attach to the cranking mechanism, then wind 70 to 80 times; as it winds, you'll be able to see how well the flapping mechanism works. Hold the ornithopter up at about a 30-degree angle and launch gently into the wind. Adjust the ornithopter according to how it performs: decreasing or increasing tail angle to give it less or more lift, or adding weight (an additional drop of glue) to the one wing to make it fly straighter. Use model aeroplane rubber bands only; lubricate rubber bands with vegetable oil and store out of direct sunlight to make them last longer. Practice wire bending on paper clips first; it must be precise. Use the pre-printed plans that come with your model (also available to download from online) as your work surface by covering with waxed paper so you can read through it. The trickiest part of assembly is not using too much glue. Be prepared to scrape away excess glue with toothpicks or wooden matchsticks as you work.


Don't fly any model aeroplanes near power lines.

Things You'll Need

  • Basic ornithopter kit
  • Tissue paper
  • Model-making epoxy glue or Super Glue
  • Straight pins to stabilise while drying
  • Scissors or hobby knife
  • Needle-nose pliers
  • White glue
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