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COMPUTER GIVES DA VINCI HIGH MARKS ON HIS PARACHUTE CALCULATIONS

Leonardo da Vinci, artist, engineer and Renaissance man, may not have got his flying machines quite right, but his parachute calculations were spot on.

Bernard Ambrose, a retired physics teacher, has tested his drawings with the help of computer-aided design and scale models and is impressed with the safety side of things."I made a model of his parachute. Now he says his parachute made a tent 24 feet across," he said at a recent meeting in Loughborough, England, of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Ambrose asked the Royal Air Force how big a parachute should be, citing Leonardo's 24-foot measurement. The RAF said 24 feet was "spot on."

"I thought it remarkable that a man who had never flown designed a safety device and comes up with a size 24 feet across," Ambrose said.

There was a flaw. Da Vinci didn't realize that a canopy would be self-inflating, so he stuck a pole in it - awkward to cope with in the last second before landing.

Da Vinci's helicopter, powered by a man pushing round an air screw, had problems, too: If liftoff had ever been achieved, the pilot's feet would have pushed the base-plate around, rather than the air screw.

The fundamental flaw in his flying machine lay in his attempt to imitate bird flight, but he did calculate the mass a man might be able to lift.

When in the 1980s the first man-powered Gossamer Albatross flew, it was much the same weight as da Vinci's design. Had he been able to alter designs after tests, things might have worked better.

"If he'd kept on improving it, he would have ended up with a jump-jet fighter aircraft," said Ambrose.

However, it was difficult to sort out whether Leonardo was an originator, Ambrose said, "or whether he was working in an area where there were ideas floating around."