Dreams of human-powered flight go back at least to the myth of Daedelus and Icarus attempting to flee their Cretan prison by fashioning wings from feathers and wax. Your editor doesn’t know why we continue to name festivals of flight for Icarus, since he was the young, foolish soul who flew too close to the sun and melted his wings. His older, wiser father heeded his own advice and made the trip safely because he was not so bold. Maybe we use Icarus’ name out of respect for his sacrifice.
In the spirit of the two mythical aviators and Leonardo daVinci, Italian designer Enea Bossi and builder Vittorio Bonomi oversaw several bungee-launched flights in 1936 with their spruce, balsa wood and light fabric covered Pedaliante. A 17-meter (55 feet) wingspan, twin propeller airplane, the 220-pound vehicle made as many as 40 flights, but the records are apparently hazy on their duration and distance under human power.
World War II intervened and stopped a great many sport flying endeavors. In human-powered efforts, SUMPAC (Southhampton University Man-Powered Aircraft) made the first officially observed unassisted takeoff in pursuit of the Kremer Prize in November, 1961, pedaled and piloted by Derek Piggott, who later became chief gliding instructor at Lasham Airport.
Enthusiasts and university researchers, mainly in Britain and Japan, worked on achieving prolonged flight and after 1974, attempting to win the Kremer Prize, a 50,000 pound (about $140,000 in 1974 exchange rates) purse from Henry Kremer, a British industrialist. Dr. Paul MacCready’s Gossamer Condor, pedaled and piloted by Bryan Allen, made it around the Kremer Course, a figure eight around two markers one mile apart, and cleared the three-meter barriers at the start and finish of the course. This was on August 23, 1977. Within two years an advanced form of MacCready’s design, the Gossamer Albatross, flew across the English Channel on human energy. By transcending the locked-in idea that a human-powered airplane had to look like a bigger and lighter conventional airplane, MacCready turned to his modeling background and made an HPA that looked like the prize-winning models he had built in his youth. It also used new materials such as carbon fiber that had not been available to earlier enthusiasts.
Human-powered flight has an exciting history, especially in the way structures played an important part in allowing light weight, strength and aerodynamics to come together for some amazing flights. Bossi-Bonomis’ Pedaliante was a hefty 220 pounds for its 58-foot wing, but later use of carbon fiber, sheer Mylar covering, and ultralight foams dropped the Gossamer Condor’s weight with its 96-foot span to 70 pounds and Daedalus 88’s 112-feet, 332-square foot wing, fuselage, tail and connecting wires to 70 pounds – enabling it to fly the 74 miles from Crete to Santorini and duplicate Daedalus’s mythic feat. It was just strong enough to hold together until it was 20 feet from shore, where the starboard wing snapped and dumped the pilot into the warm sea. So far, this is the longest flight in both miles and time aloft. Monetary prizes await the achievement of other challenging tasks, though.
Three Kremer Prizes have yet to be awarded, for a total of £150,000 ($240,000).
- For flying a 26 mile Marathon course in under an hour (£50,000 or $80,000),
- A sporting aircraft challenge stressing maneuverability (£100,000 or $160,000),
- A local challenge limited to youth groups (under 18 years) in the UK.
One hoped for element in human-powered flight is a sporting competition, where the airplanes are light enough and aerodynamically capable of allowing someone less than a championship athlete to fly, and hardy enough to survive several flights without major rebuilds. To that end, the British brought together competitors for a week of learning, flying and sharing ideas. This first of such events was almost blown away at times, but concluded happily.
“The 2012 Icarus Cup Competition took place on 13 – 22 July (2012) at Lasham Airfield and a total of five teams put their aircraft designs to the test. The entrants were:
- “The competitions covered multiple aspects of human powered flight, including duration, 100 metre sprint, 1 kilometre race, slalom course, take-off and landing accuracy test, and distance around a triangular course. The challenge not only lies within the tasks, but also the construction of the aircraft and the athleticism of the pilot. Planes must be durable, yet lightweight and the pilot must be able to produce enough power to remain airborne whilst maintaining control of the aircraft.
- “During competition, teams are awarded points for each task. The team who accumulates the most points at the conclusion of the competition is awarded first prize and the Pilot who achieves the highest individual score is awarded the Icarus Cup. A total of three trophies and cash prizes are given to the three highest scoring teams.”
Human-powered flight is a nearly magical place in the kingdom of flight, and the lessons learned from the low-Reynolds number, low-power end of the spectrum can teach valuable lessons in the design and construction of other flight vehicles.
For a more highly detailed history of human-powered flight, see Chris Roper’s excellent web site.
For a serious look at the design and technology that led to early HPA’s, see Keith Sherwin’s Man Powered Flight, available through services such as Abe Books or Alibris.