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To Fly Like a Bird...

By Collections Curator Ruth Bitner
February 200

Man sitting inside wooden ornithopter Vallevand seated in ornithopter
WDM Archives

Ralph Vallevand of Elbow, Saskatchewan dreamed of flying like a bird. In true pioneer spirit, he set about to build a machine that would make his dream a reality. His retirement in the early 1990s gave him the time he needed to develop his plans.

Vallevand was not alone. For hundreds of years, humans have longed for the freedom of birds. In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated with the idea of human-powered flight and produced a design for such a machine. Many others followed, designing their own flying machines, or ornithopters, with flapping wings. None, however, were successful.

Ralph Vallevand with model ornithopter
WDM Archives

A carpenter by trade, Vallevand had the woodworking skills to create his dream machine. He studied airplane construction and spent many hours observing the wing action of birds in flight. He understood that a bird’s wings push slightly backward as well as flapping up and down. Vallevand applied this knowledge to the design of his craft.

Working with lightweight, knot-free Sitka spruce, Vallevand designed his machine to simulate this movement.

Ornithopter wings with fabric “feathers”
WDM Archives

A clever hinge arrangement using a series of bungee cords was used to create the flapping motion. The wings were covered with strips of cloth which acted as feathers, opening and closing with the wing movement. A cage affair was designed for the operator.

Vallevand’s ornithopter had a wingspan of 16.15 metres and weighed only 68 kg. It was assembled for viewing in the Elbow hockey rink. The delicate machine attracted considerable local attention, however, its ability to fly was never tested. Vallevand himself commented, “I wouldn’t want to be the test pilot.”

While the machine may or may not have been successful in flight, Vallevand is an example of the Saskatchewan tradition of invention, innovation and the spirit of independent adventure.

Only a year after the Wright Brothers historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, William Gibson, known as the “bird man of Balgonie” began experimenting with flying machines. He later moved to British Columbia and built his own airplane engine, making a successful flight in 1910. Bob St. Henry made Saskatchewan’s first heavier-than-air flight in 1911. And our province boasted the first licensed commercial pilot, the first licensed air engineer, the first licensed commercial aircraft and the first licensed aerodrome (airport) in Canada.

Ornithopter assembled in the Elbow rink; Vallevand (centre)
WDM Archives

Ralph Vallevand donated both a model of his ornithopter and the actual machine to the Western Development Museum in 2001. Repairs were done by a group of aviation enthusiasts before the machine was put on exhibit in the Saskatoon WDM in 2002. Sadly, Vallevand did not live to see it on display. However, he will long be remembered for his creative spirit and the pursuit of his dream.

Man standing beside ornithopter with canvas on wings Ralph Vallevand, (left) with his ornithopter, Elbow rink
WDM Archives

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