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If humans had wings, let's just say in the classic angel position. It's pretty obvious that we don't have the muscles or aerodynamics to actually fly with them. I was looking at hang-gliders, and I was wondering if maybe humans could use actual wings in the same way.

Could humans glide with the right wing surface area?

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! We're glad you could join us! When you have a moment, please click here to learn more about our culture and take our tour. Are you married to the traditional angel's wings configuration, or will you consider alternatives (like the flying squirrel configuration)? $\endgroup$ – JBH May 18 at 23:52
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    $\begingroup$ This really depends on the glide ratio you want, For a lot of animals "gliding" is little more than controlled falling. $\endgroup$ – John May 19 at 3:26
  • $\begingroup$ @John: for a lot of humans in purpose built gliders the same is true! :-) $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs May 19 at 6:46
  • $\begingroup$ @John the mention of "hang gliders" seems to imply something a bit more than merely falling in style. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime May 19 at 8:37
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    $\begingroup$ I don't fully understand the question. Human can and do glide and soar with the right kind of wings. We've known this since the heroic experiments of Otto Lilienthal at the end of the 19th century. Even the querent knows that humans can do it and they actually do it, because the question mentions hang gliders. So the answer is, very obviously, that yes, they can. What is the real question? $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 19 at 17:32
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Could humans glide with the right wing surface area?

Yes, they could, but it would be cumbersome. And the wings' ligaments and muscles would have to be withstand a lot of stress, specially in the joints.

Humans can glide with very little surface area added, and with a very sturdy framework already in place, if you just add more skin between the regular limbs:

I believe I can flyyyyy... I believe I can touch the skyyyyy

I'm more than a bird, I'm more than a plane! I'm a birdplane!

Fly like an eagle, into the fuuuuture...

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    $\begingroup$ Depends on what the OP expected from "glide"... hang gliders and various parafoils can gain altitude in thermals, after all, whereas the wingsuits you've linked are strictly for downward journeys. I'd also be much happier to land on a solid surface if I were parapenting than if I were wingsuit base jumping... $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime May 19 at 8:36
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Takes too much power. Even bicycle gear train powered flight is marginal.

Edit in response to comments: Power here refers to human power. The power (energy/unit time) is a requirement whether it's muscle flapping a wing of feathers and skin and bone; its legs pumping a bicycle frame spinning a prop; a tightly wound rubber band, or a gas engine. The remainder of this argument discusses the power envelope requirements, and ways where a borderline condition can be nudged in the direction of reasonable possibility.

Power requirements: Slower is better. Drag goes up with $V^2$ But at low speed you need large wing areas. Google 'human powered flight'

Things that can help:

Lower gravity. Heinlein, in "The Menace From Earth" has lunar colonists flying in the air storage caverns. 1/6 the gravity. Generating 30 pounds of lift is a far less daunting task. Add to that, you have a lot less wing to drag around, and drag through the air.

Higher air pressure. More air = more lift for the same wing at the same speed. First order approximation is linear. So at 30 psi you need half the wing.

Lighter bodies. The ideal for this would be the physique of a teen age boy with only a few percent body fat.

Fast twitch muscles. This allows brief spurts of very high power. People have a combo of fast twitch and massive recruitment can get all their muscle fibers cooperating. Remember that scrawny kid in high school P.E. who could do 25 pullups?

Drugs. Mechanisms to increase metabolic rate. Brings up another problem -- cooling. Wear a special suit and carry a water supply to wet it to have 'artificial sweat'

More drugs. Topical steroids to increase size of specific muscles.

Surgical alteration. Move muscle attachment points to get better leverage.

More surgical alternation. Exit valves at the bottom of the rib cage so that you exhaled air out the bottom. This should increase lung efficiency by 25%, and reduce the energy needed to breath. Indeed at the right speed it may be sufficient to open your mouth and become a flow through oxygen strainer. Not sure how you would keep your lungs from drying out.

Even more surgery: Replace bones with artificial bones. (Harder than you think. Bones are very strong for their mass)

Glucose IV. Might be able to increase stamina this way. Less demand on digestive tract.

Even with all this, I think the best you can hope for is the equivalent of a human powered sail plane or hang glider.

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    $\begingroup$ The question is not about powered flight. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK May 19 at 13:25
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    $\begingroup$ "Things that can help: (...) Drucs (...)" I like this one. $\endgroup$ – Renan May 19 at 14:13
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    $\begingroup$ The question does not ask about powered flight but asks if a hang glider type design is possible. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon May 19 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ Topical steroids to increase the size of muscles? I suspect you've used the wrong term there... $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime May 19 at 20:17

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