A PhD student at the University of Toronto has become the first person ever to make a sustained flight in a human-powered ‘wing-flapping' aircraft.

The feat is something that inventors and engineers have been attempting for centuries, dating back to Leonardo Da Vinci's famous 15th century designs for the imagined machine.

Then last month, engineering student Todd Reichart made the concept a reality -- if only for a few seconds.

On Aug. 2, he piloted the glider plane-like aircraft 145 metres in 19.3 seconds, for an average speed of 25.6 kilometres per hour. He pushed pedals with his legs to power the aircraft.

The vice-president (Canada) of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale was on hand to witness the world-record flight of "The Snowbird" at the Great Lakes Gliding Club in Tottenham, Ont.

The organization is expected to confirm the flight as a world record in October.

While the aircraft weighs only 42.6 kilograms its wingspan is 32 metres, similar to that of a Boeing 737. But the Snowbird weighs less than all of the pillows on board the jetliner.

Reichart said the feat represents "the completion of an age-old aeronautical dream" and "one of the last of the aviation firsts."

To get the Snowbird airborne, he lost eight kilograms over the summer. Now his efforts as pilot and chief aircraft's chief structural engineer appear to be paying off.

In a brief video posted online Sept. 21, the Snowbird is pulled forward through a grassy field by a vehicle off camera. The aircraft takes off as it gains speed, rising a few metres off the ground and flapping its long wings 16 times before landing farther down the field nearly a minute later.

While the Snowbird's flight is considered the first wing-flapping "ornithopter" to reach sustained flight, aviation enthusiasts have built and piloted human-powered airplanes for decades.

In 1979, aerodynamicist Paul MacCready successfully crossed the English Channel in an ultra-lightweight plane, which he powered by pedalling with his legs.