Whatever happened to the human-powered flying machine?


The last person to make an attempt to fly without the aid of a Boeing 757 or personal bi-plane, was champion bicyclist Kenellos Kenellopoulus, who made the 74-mile journey from Crete to Santorini only to see the Daedalus aircraft break apart several feet from his destination. That was in 1988. Why haven’t other athletes tried to top this feat?

Team Social Dynamics

Experts say the personnel on the project failed to work as a cohesive team, their lack of cooperation threw a conceptual wrench in the gears.

It’s hard to imagine athletes, engineers, mathematicians, physicists, cognitive scientists, and journalists all working together without one of the group trying to outdo another.

Those on the Daedalus project came from all walks of life, with some of the most talented people from MIT, Yale University, NASA, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society.


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Daedalus in Action

The flight began at the main airport of Iraklion, on Crete, with a horizontal launch under the pilot’s own power, as governed by FAI rules. During the flight, the Daedalus flew primarily between 15 and 30 feet in altitude, and was accompanied by several escort vessels. The speed of the flight was helped by a tailwind, but this also made a head-on landing approach to the narrow beach hazardous, especially with crowds of spectators on the sand. The pilot maneuvered the aircraft to land more into the wind and parallel with the length of the beach. As the right wing extended over the black sand beach, the heat rising from the beach lifted that wing, turning the aircraft back towards the sea. This effect prevented the pilot from getting the whole aircraft onto the beach.

via Wikipedia


The Turn

The flight ended in the water (7 meters from Perissa Beach on Santorini, according to the official record), when increasing gusty winds caused a torsional failure of the tail boom. Lacking control, the airplane then pitched nose-up, and another gust caused a failure of the main wing spar.

via Wikipedia

To understand the process from start to finish, spun from the lips of those who were there, delve into Gary Dorsey’s account of the events as recorded in their entirety in The Fullness of Wings.

The Myth Behind the Name

Icarus and Daedalus

The name Daedalus has its origins in Greek mythology. Icarus, the son of Daedalus tries to escape from Crete using wings made of wax and feathers, circa 1300 BC. After flying too near the sun, his wings melt and he falls to his death at sea. Meanwhile his father Daedalus flies to safety, unaware of his son’s fate.

Following along the same flight path as this cautionary tale describes, maybe the experiment was doomed from the start? From the time of the Greeks to the last attempt in ’88, man-powered flight has seen history repeat itself countless times.

In the Past

The first recorded attempt flight saw its debut in 1912, when Robert Peugot managed to fly 33 feet with his bicycle-turned-flying machine. Experiments continued on into the 1930s, and cropped up again several times in the 50s and 70s. Yet, you don’t see anyone working on a similar machine today.

Robert Peugot, 1912

In the End

Is there a lesson to be learned? Man flew too close to the sun and got burned.

We’ve seen success in the development and sustainability of 70,000-pound aircraft, magically soaring through the heavens to lift us from one continent and deposit us on another, yet no one man has made the journey alone. Could it be impossible for a championship bicyclist to sustain a steady rhythm for four hours at a time, even with the assistance of chemically-enhanced super drinks and a mathematically perfected caloric intake?

Were there too many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak, during the last attempt in ’88, staving off any further desire to instigate a similar fate?

Human-powered flying machines have been in the works for over one hundred years, so why have we since ceased trying to develop new ways to pursue this goal, especially since we were so close in thirty years ago?

Dorsey’s book The Fullness of Wings may lend some insight into a possible solution to developing the thought process to accommodate the teamwork necessary to achieve man-powered flight in the future.

Until then, the Daedalus is the last reported event experiment where man attempted to take to the skies, free from the noise of jet engines and the possibility of getting bumped in the elbow by in-flight food carts.




This article was inspired Frank Pace, an engineer at KING.




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