How Does Human-Powered Aircraft Worked
Otto Lilienthal Floats
German inventor, Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896), racked up more than 2,000 flights and built at least 18 different delta planes. He even developed his own artificial hill to take off with his floating rig. He once managed to reach a distance of 250m. As a teenager, he would attach wings to his arms and run down hills while flapping. However, he never took off. Nevertheless, he never gave up on the idea of moving wings. When he finally made working planes, he tried to attach flapping wings. Lilienthal’s first model moved on arm power. Later he invented a model that moved the wings by engine power. Neither model was successful. The German wanted to better understand how birds fly, before putting flapping wings into practice. Sadly, he wouldn’t get too far in his quest. He got caught in a strong gust of thermal wind during a flight in August 1896. He crashed, broke his back and died.
You don’t start impossible flying projects just for kicks. Throw in a wad of cash and it becomes a bit more serious. In 1959, The Royal Aeronautical Society in London put up the Kremer Prize for the first person who would succeed in flying a course in a figure eight shape over a distance of 1.6km long in a controlled manner. The prize money was not won for 18 years until Paul MacCready and Bryan Allen won the prize in 1977. The Society put out more prizes after this. One can win about R600,000 if you can finish a course of 21km with at least two controlled bends within an hour.
A second Kremer Prize of about R1,2 million goes to the person who can make an aeroplane that can fly under normal weather circumstances while still being able to manoeuvre it properly. What is ‘normal weather’? According to the rules one needs a wind speed of at least 18km/h.
The American Helicopter Society offers a prize of about R160,000 for anyone who can keep a helicopter flying for a minimum of one minute at an altitude of three metres. To date, nobody has succeeded.
Franz Reichelt parachute suit
Flying was not really safe at the beginning of the 20th century. French tailor Franz Reichelt (1879-1912) wanted to do something about that. So he designed a parachute suit. The suit would change into a parachute with a few tugs of a cord when a pilot was forced to leave the plane. Reichelt used dummies for his first tests. He stuffed them inside the flying suit and dropped them from the fifth floor of his apartment building. Next, he proceeded to jump off a nine-metre high haystack. These minimal tests had convinced him that his invention worked. The police gave him permission to test his suits from the Eiffel Tower.
Reichelt climbed to the first platform of the Parisian tower on a freezing cold morning in February in 1912. He didn’t believe he would fail. A little after 8am, he was ready at 80 metres. Reichelt unfolded his parachute because the distance was too small to pull the cord. He stood on a chair on the balustrade, looked down and jumped. The crowd screamed. His suit did nothing and he fell to the ground and was killed instantly. His body made an imprint of 15cm in the ground.
Jarno Smeet – the Hauge
Wings may be the obvious choice for flying, but nobody ever succeeded in taking off that way. Last year, a film appeared on the internet in which Dutch mechanical engineer Jarno Smeets runs through a park in The Hague complete with wings. The video shows a flight that lasted for about a minute. Smeets flaps enormous, kite-like wings – and suddenly ‘lifts off’, flying 300 feet (about 91 metres) through the air. The stunt caused controversy online, with many viewers claiming that it must be faked. According to Smeets, the movement of his arms was transformed into the wings by a Nintento Wii controlller, a smartphone, accelerator sensors and a battery powered motor. Smeets said that he studied the take off of the Albatross intensively. He used this knowledge for his own flight. Smeets admitted a day later in a Dutch TV show that it was fake. His real name is actually Floris Kaayk and he is an animator and filmmaker. His project Human Birdwing was an experiment about how you tell a story online. Kaayk had been working on a blog and a Facebook page for about 6 months for this fictitious project.
Flying machines records
• In 1988, Greek Kanellos Kanellopoulos flew 115.11 kilometres from Crete to Santorini. He propelled his flight by cycling and flew the distance in three hours, 54 minutes and 59 seconds. This was the furthest and longest flight with a human-powered aeroplane ever. The flight was stopped because strong wind gushes blew the tail off the plane. The craft crashed just off the coast and Kanellopoulos swam the last few metres.
• The Snowbird was the first aeroplane with flapping wings to cover a distance of 145 metres at an altitude of three metres. The pilot propelled the wings by cycling. The craft could not take off on its own so it had to be pulled by a car.
• The record for a human-power propelled helicopter was until recently 19.46m seconds at an altitude of 20 centimetres. However, that record was broken in June this year after The Gamera II stayed in the air for at least 50 seconds. Students of the University of Maryland (USA) built the helicopter. The pilot moved the four rotor blades by peddling with his arms and legs. The new record is awaiting the approval of the America National Aeronautic Association.
• The peddle-driven Musculair II broke the world record for the fastest, muscle-powered driven aeroplane in 1985. German Holger Rochelt flew an average speed of 44.26km/h over a distance of 1.5 kilometres.
Gossamer Condor and Bryan Allen
It is certainly possible to fly straight with a muscle-powered aeroplane. However, making controlled turns proved to be much more difficult. Delta flyer and cyclist Bryan Allen first managed this in 1977. He flew in the Gossamer Condor, designed by American aeronautical technician Paul MacCready. He built a small plane from very thin but sturdy plastic with aluminium frames and lots of sticky tape. The delicate structure weighed less than 32 kilograms and had a wing span of 29 metres. Allen was positioned under the wings with a mechanism and peddles. This drove the propeller of the feather-light aeroplane. He steered the craft by turning the wings’ tips. Allan managed to fly the curvy course that the Royal Aeronautical Society in London had designed in one go after ten test flights. He travelled at a speed of 16km/h. He won the Kremer Prize with this flight. Two years later, he did it again. The same team managed to fly across the English Channel with a similar aeroplane, the Gossamer Albatross. This flight took two hours and 49 minutes at a height of 1.5 metres.
Gabriel Poulain flying bicycle
Gabriel Poulain (1884-1953) tore down a hill in a park in Paris at 5am on 18 June 1921. His bicycle was equipped with two wings – a big wing above his head and a smaller one behind his saddle. The French cyclist changed the position of the wings a few degrees when he had gathered enough speed. By doing so, he took off, according to American newspaper, The New York Times, and flew 8m in a few seconds. It was not far enough. The cyclist wanted to win the Peugeot prize of 10,000 French Francs with his attempt. For this he had to fly ten metres on his own strength at an altitude of at least one metre. The prize had been available since 1912 but so far nobody had succeeded. But Poulain didn’t give up. Not even a month later he tried again. He had adjusted the back wing a little. And this time he succeeded. He managed to cover a distance of 12 metres and 32 centimetres through the air with his 17-kilogram bicycle. He broke two spokes on landing, but the repair was easily affordable with the winning prize money.
Jacob Degen wing-cloth on a bamboo frame
Austrian clockmaker and inventor Jacob Degen (1760-1848) strung a wing-cloth on a bamboo frame and attached the wings with a little harness on his shoulders. He moved the whole structure with his hands and feet. He attached a counterweight to himself to be able to fly. This was attached with a rope over a pulley that hung off the ceiling of the Spanish dressage school in Vienna. The weight pulled him up a little. With 34 wing flaps he managed to reach a height of 15 metres. Outdoors, Degen used a balloon instead of a counterweight to raise him up a little. He often performed (for money) in public with his flying machine in big cities such as Vienna and Paris. Taking off didn’t always work and the audience was not impressed during a show in Paris in 1812. His flying machine was destroyed after a failed third attempt. Police were just in time to prevent Degen from dying in the incident.
Want to try and fly yourself? You can enter the Birdman Rally. The event has been in existence since 1971 and is held in England Japan and Australia. The aim of this race is that you fly as far as possible without any help or machine propulsion. You don’t need a licence for it and you don’t even have to make your own plane. You can also win a prize by putting on a bird costume and flapping your wings: for the highest entertainment content. If you cover 100 metres, you can win a prize of about R400,000. Brit Steve Elkins thought that he had covered the distance in 2009; however, organizers say that he landed in the water just before the 100-metre buoy. Elkins was 14 centimetres short of scooping the big prize money.