Published on June 20, 2012
By Thomas Van Hare
“Know all ye, inhabitants of this city, that this day shall not end before you will see the wonder of wonders, a man who will fly with wings of cloth from the tower of the Cathedral Sé ao Campo de São Mateus!” So said João de Almeida Torto on this date in aviation history, nearly 500 years ago in 1540 AD.
João Torto was born in the town of Viseu, in northern Portugal. He was a nurse trained in the Renaissance arts of medicine and practicing in the Hospital de Sto. António em Viseu, licensed to perform bloodletting and astrology as part of his patient services. Well-educated, creative and quite apparently fearless, he designed a pair of flapping wings and proclaimed his intent to fly. His design was similar in some ways to the drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci from just 21 years earlier, though simpler and more aerodynamically effective — and also not as well known.
João Torto’s Winged Invention
João Torto’s design was a biplane with separate wings attached to the top and bottom of each arm. The bottom wing was smaller than the top, an innovation which brought advantages that would be later independently reconfirmed in the 1910s. Likewise, the construction of his wings was years ahead of its time — wooden spars with ribs were covered in calico cloth.
Three metal rings connected the top and bottom wings. His arms inserted through the rings, which were padded with rags, one ring at the shoulder, one at the elbow and the last held in his hand. Across his chest, a leather strap secured the wings to his torso. Across his back, the wing spars met at a pair of hinged joints that enabled him to flap with all his strength or, if held steady, to glide on outstretched arms. For landing, he wore boots with triple thick soles. Finally, to pay homage to the birds that had inspired him, he constructed a eagle-shaped helmet with a beak.
His wife, fearing that her husband had gone mad, ensured at least that a last will and testament be written so that she and their children could inherit his lands and holdings, as otherwise the properties would be given to Torto’s brothers. Upon the day of the flight, sadly resigned to what she knew would be an upcoming tragedy, she elected to watch at the doorway of nearby chapel — later writers would claim this was the doorway of the Capela de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, though that building was only constructed years later.
A Flight into History
At 5:00 pm on the appointed day of June 20, 1540, a large crowd assembled in the church square. João Torto ascended the cathedral tower and stood upon a platform that the priests had allowed him to construct there for his flight. Using a rope and pulley, João Torto then pulled his wings and eagle helmet up to the platform. He suited up as the crowds watched in anticipation. With a final blessing from the priests, he stretched his winged arms outward and stood like an angel atop the cathedral. He began to flap as he jumped off the platform. To make his intended landing spot, he aimed at the square below, intending to first make a curving flight past the adjacent Chapel of St. Luis.
Incredibly, he flew.
Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that he entered into something of an unlikely glide, flapping mightily as he plummeted both forward and downward rapidly toward the ground. Despite his steep angle of descent, the key thing was that he maintained control. He was flying, in the truest sense, though not very well. His winged hopes were dragged earthward by the simple fact that his wings were too small, his body too heavy, and gravity, as always, is relentless in its tug.
The first sign of the impending disaster was noted when his bird helmet slipped, pressed downward from the force of his increasing airspeed — the helmet covered his eyes. With both arms held outward to support the wings, there was nothing he could do to readjust it and restore his vision. Now blinded, it seemed apparent that a safe touchdown in the square below would be impossible.
Perhaps having some vision through the bottom of the helmet, João Torto clearly made a turn and attempted an emergency landing on the roof of the Chapel of St. Luis. Again, he was completely in control. Yet even so, his luck failed him. He flared and tried to alight on his boots, but misjudged the landing. Sadly, he slipped off the roof and, without any airspeed or time to recover, he fell vertically to the ground head first.
For a second time, his bird helmet failed him. Though designed for opulence, it offered scant protection against his impact with the paving stones. His crumpled body was motionless. Onlookers rushed over and, seeing that he was still breathing, carried him to the very hospital where he usually worked. The staff there, recognizing one of their own, did their utmost to try to save him. After two hours, he briefly regained consciousness, though it is not recorded if he said any last words. Then, he fell into a coma.
João Torto died a few days later — not from the flight, but from the fall after his failed emergency landing.
João Torto Reconsidered
Looking back, there seems little doubt that João Torto actually flew (and half fell) into history. His flight that fine June day was witnessed by many who described some level of control. To almost all present, he appeared to be flying successfully, if only briefly. Likewise, he was able to divert his flight path and make a purposeful turn toward the chapel for an emergency landing. Or was it overstated? If he did fly as described, he deserves to be called the world’s first aviator, even if he died in the attempt.
Today, João Torto’s flight is remembered, if only in Portugal. There, his daring achievement is celebrated each year on its anniversary. A museum features a model of his wingsuit. For our part, we can only wonder if a reproduction of João Torto’s flight suit might actually be shown to fly. Yet would anyone be crazy enough to try it? It seems like the risk would be too great, though it could be done at altitude with a parachute added for safety.
Ultimately, this seems like a challenge best takenon by the “Mythbusters” of TV fame. Might it be worthwhile to uncover the aerodynamics and efficiency of João Torto’s biplane wingsuit? Could a modern day reenactor succeed by flapping the same distance and heights as if from atop the Cathedral Sé ao Campo de São Mateus in Viseu, Portugal, to a safe landing in the square below after all?
While there seems little doubt that João de Almeida Torto flew, if badly, his death reonfirmed the widely accepted view that man was not meant to fly — at least not yet — in the Year of Our Lorde, 1540, in Viseu, Portugal.
On the other hand, some say that the tale of João de Almeida Torto is little more than sparesely documented imaginings that have grown in myth by the same proportion of the passing years. Will we ever know?
One More Bit of Aviation Trivia
It would be another 75 years before another Renaissance man would successfully fly. Just after the turn of the century in about 1610 AD, Paolo Guidotti constructed a set of bird wings from whalebone covered with feathers. He managed a flight of 400 yards before he crash landed through a rooftop, breaking his thigh. After that, he gave up flying. Like João de Almeida Torto, his flight is mostly lost to history.
Today, jumping off mountains in a winged suit is no longer the stuff of Renaissance legend. Modern wingsuits regularly fly from buildings, towers, cliffs and mountains with parachutes to ensure a safe landing.
See Jeb Corliss with his Wingsuit
Truly one of the most extraordinary extreme pilots in the world today, Jeb Corliss specializes in base jumping with a wingsuit, flying where no man has ever flown before. He calculates and plans new flight paths over mountain ridges, through waterfalls, along cliffs and down ravines. Without question, he is one of the most skilled wingsuit pilots in the world today. He makes it look easy when it is anything but that — and what an experience for us all to have the chance of riding along through his videos! Our hat is off to the true master of the wingsuit — Jeb Corliss (João Torto would be proud).
Externally Hosted Video — http://jebcorliss.net/