Ornithopter was the basic method of airborne travel in the Imperium. They are vehicles that fly like birds rather than powered gliders or helicopters.
The first ornithopters were built in 7585 BG by a team of scientists being held as political prisoners of the abortive Thinkers' Rebellion of 7600 BG by Emperor Neweh. Their head was Jehane Golitle tasked to earn her team's continued well-being by inventing useful devices which would make a profit for the emperor.
As they scoured Imperial Scientific Archives in a desperate search for obsolete inventions, Golitle had been looking for some method of constructing a flying machine that could combine the versatility of a bird with the size of an artificial aircraft, and she discovered the secret she sought in the Heart Scallop.
Golitle removed her entire research facility to the Forannis Triad and began intensive experimentation, culminating in 7580 BG with the test flight of the first true ornithopter.
Ornithopters faced considerable resistance when first introduced, since the piloting of one was quite different from the flying of fixed-wing craft. Emperor Neweh, was distressed with the slow acceptance of the ornithopter.
One of the earliest sport ornithopterists was Ibrahim Vaughn Holtzman, who was seriously injured in a crash of an early model in 7565 BG. The Imperial Pilots Guild refused to admit members on the basis of ornithopter flight-time until 7520 BG and many systems refused to permit ornithopters to be used as anything but sport or commuter vehicles.
Acceptance eventually with the Butlerian Jihad, and its proscription of complicated machinery. This advanced the simple, effective ornithopter and by 7000 BG, they were the favored mode of airborne transports to rule the sky of most planets.
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The basic element of the common ornithopter is the installation at the wing-junctures of a
domesticated, specially-bred Heart Scallop which is connected to a series of electrical leads.
The electrical currents have two purposes:
- one line is used to shock the bivalve into dormancy when the pilot of the ornithopter wishes to utilize fixed-wing flight (normally jet-assisted). When the power is disconnected, the Heart Scallop immediately resumes pulsing, thus providing the ornithopter with a certain amount of fail-safe capacity.
- The other line in the electrical system is connected to the mollusk's nerve centers, and, when engaged, causes the Heart Scallop to increase its pulsation rate by an amount which varies with the intensity of the current.
- This is seldom used except when the pilot wishes to brake rapidly or wishes to take off from a constricted site.
The efficiency of the ornithopter's "engine" is difficult to surpass. The scallops need very little maintenance.
They must be periodically retrimmed to prevent them from growing beyond the constraints of their installation pods, but the connections between the mollusk and the aircraft assembly are remarkably durable, since the animal treats the wing and body of the ornithopter as if those structures were its own shell. The scallops need no fuel, since they strain the air they fly through (though good maintenance procedure mandates allowing the creatures to continue to function even when the ornithopter is not in use — a point which occurred late to ornithopter manufacturers who did not use detachable wings on the earlier models).
The major repair and maintenance problems associated with ornithopters are the wing gears and joints, which are complicated ball-and-socket connections, and structural problems arising from the switchover from bird-like flight, which requires flexible wings for optimum performance, to fixed-wing flight, which requires rigid structures.