Friday, June 12, 2015

Wither Human Powered Flight?

Is the future of purposeful human-powered flight, recreational or otherwise, a non-starter? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Back in June 12, 1979, It seems that the “dawn” of human-powered flight was already at hand when Bryan Allen, pedaling continuously for 2 hours 49 minutes, became the first pilot to successfully cross the English Channel under his own power via the first “man-powered airplane”, the Gossamer Albatross. Unfortunately, when the 1980s came and went, the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration never issued guidelines and licenses for “recreational man-powered aircraft”. Given the aeronautical engineering challenges, is human-powered flight a non-starter due to the low power-to-weight-ratio of the “human machine”? 

Bryan Allen’s Gossamer Albatross flight back in June 12, 1979 may be the most successful demonstration of human-powered flight given that none comparable attempt had happened since, but mankind has successfully flown before under his own power some years before. Back in 1962, John Wimpenny holds the international record for successfully flying a specially designed aircraft for more than half a mile in which he himself was the engine. 

John Wimpenny’s dream of a “human-powered flight” was first given impetus back in 1959 when a British plastics manufacturer named Henry Kremer offered a UK £5,000 prize for the first successful flight of an aircraft based on a human propulsion system. In November 1961 a group of aircraft engineers and technicians headed by Whimpenny completed construction of a plane which they christened the “Puffin”, built primarily of wood and covered with plastic skin. Fundamentally, it was a cross between an airplane and a bicycle because the “cockpit” enclosed a single-wheel cycle; the pilot pumped the pedals, turning the wheel for takeoff momentum and at the same time spinning the propeller for in-flight thrust. 

On May 2, 1962, Whimpenny, who had warmed up for the flight by cycling 5 miles to work every day for 2 years took the pedal-powered Puffin to an altitude of 8 feet and traveled for 993 yards. The flight set a record, but won no prize because the contest specified a longer flight and a figure-8 course. Although Kremer has since upped the prize to UK £10,000 since Wimpenny’s 1962 attempt, the “Kremer Prize” still awaits a winner.