More than 500 years after Leonardo da Vinci sketched his design, a Briton has proved that the renaissance genius was indeed the inventor of the first working parachute.
Adrian Nicholas, a 38-year-old skydiver from London, fulfilled his life's ambition to prove the aerodynamics experts wrong when he used a parachute based on Da Vinci's design to float almost one and a half miles down from a hot air balloon. Ignoring warnings that it would never work, he built the 187lb contraption of wooden poles, canvas and ropes from a simple sketch that Da Vinci had scribbled in a notebook in 1485.
And at 7am on Monday, over the Mpumalanga province of South Africa, Mr Nicholas proved in a 7,000ft descent that the design could indeed be looked upon as a prototype for the modern parachute.
Yesterday he said: "It took one of the greatest minds who ever lived to design it, but it took 500 years to find a man with a brain small enough to actually go and fly it.
"All the experts agreed it wouldn't work - it would tip over or fall apart or spin around and make you sick - but Leonardo was right all along. It's just that no one else has ever bothered trying to build it before."
Mr Nicholas, who holds the world record for the longest free fall at just under five minutes, was strapped into a harness attached by four thick ropes to a 70ft square frame of nine pine poles covered in canvas. He was then hoisted by a hot air balloon to 10,000ft above ground level.
The balloon dropped altitude for a few seconds, to enable the parachute to fill with air, and the harness was released, allowing the parachute to float free.
Surrounded by two helicopters and two parachutists, Mr Nicholas fell for five minutes as a black box recorder measured the 7,000ft descent, before he cut himself free and released a conventional parachute. The Da Vinci model, which has more in common with sail technology than with the modern-day parachute, made such a smooth and slow descent that the two accompanying parachutists had to brake twice to stay level with it. It had none of the sudden plunges and swinging associated with modern parachutes.
After being cut free, the contraption floated to the ground with only minor damage on impact.
Mr Nicholas, a former broadcaster who has made 6,500 skydives, said: "The whole experience was incredibly moving, like one of those great English boy's own adventures. I had a feeling of gentle elation and celebration. It was like floating under a balloon.
"I was able to stare out at the river below, with the wind rattling through my ears. As I landed, I thanked Leonardo for a wonderful ride."
The contraption, which has seen two aborted attempts to fly over Salisbury plain in Wiltshire earlier this year, was built by Katarina Ollikainen, Mr Nicholas's Swedish girlfriend.
Following Da Vinci's design for a four-sided pyramid covered in linen and measuring 24ft square at the base, Ms Ollikainen used only tools and materials that would have been available in the 15th century, apart from some thick balloon tapes to stop the canvas tearing.
Although there was little demand for parachutes in the 15th century - and it was the Frenchman Louis-Sebastien Lenormand who was always credited with the first parachute jump after he leapt from a tree with the help of two parasols - Da Vinci gave specific instructions for his design.
He wrote beside his sketch: "If a man is provided with a length of gummed linen cloth, with a length of 12 yards on each side and 12 yards high, he can jump from any great height whatsoever without any injury." Leonardo's inventions By Helen Morris Aereoplane Numerous machines using bird-like wings which could be flapped by a man using his arms and legs - although most were too heavy to get off the ground using manpower alone. Encompassed retractable landing gear and crash safety systems using shock absorbers
Helicopter Prototype featured a rotating airscrew or propeller powered by a wound-up spring
Armoured car/tank Powered by four soldiers sitting inside. Problems included its thin wheels and large weight, which would make it hard to move
Diving Several different suits, most with a diver breathing air from the surface through long hoses. One imagined a crush-proof air chamber on the diver's chest to allow free swimming without any link to the surface
Robot First humanoid robot drawn in about 1495, and designed to sit up, wave its arms and move its head via a flexible neck while moving its jaw
Machine gun His innovations to create rapid fire led to the Gatling gun and the machine gun
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