Human powered!

As the sun rose on a still and misty morning at Lasham Airfield in mid July, a group of intrepid aviators was limbering up for early morning flights. With the aircraft wheeled out from their marquee-like temporary hangars and pilots warming up on pedal cycles, we were reaching the climax of the inaugural human powered aircraft (HPA) Icarus Cup, an event staged to commemorate the 51st anniversary of human powered flight.

We owe a lot to Mr Henry Kremer: were it not for the generosity and support of this industrialist, who left a legacy to the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1959, human powered flight would probably still be only a dream. By funding a series of prizes, he has provided a focus for research and made possible the building of some extraordinary aircraft.

Two large Kremer prizes still remain unclaimed: namely the �50,000 for an HPA to fly a 26-mile Marathon distance course in a time of under one hour, and �100,000 for a sporting HPA capable of operation in ‘normal weather conditions’.

Consequently, the Royal Aeronautical Society organised the inaugeral Icarus Cup to promote human powered flight both technically and as a practical sporting event, with the dream of it one day becoming an Olympic sport.

Taking place over a period of nine days, competing teams completed a series of challenges designed to test all aspects of human powered flight. Each task accumulated points with the result being a financial prize for the winning team and the Icarus Cup being awarded to the pilot who had the most individual points.

Competition tasks included:

• A duration flight

Most Read

• A 200m sprint race

• A 500m race

• A 1km race

• A slalom course

• An unassisted takeoff

• A take off and landing accuracy task

• Distance around a triangular course (which in the end was was not attempted by any competitor)

The event

Poor weather dogged the first few days of the event. We pick up the story at 5.00am, time for the morning briefing on the last day of the nine-day competition. Standing with Derek Piggott MBE?one of the UK’s best-known glider pilots, aged 89?and over thirty other team members is Dr Bill Brookes, Race Director. Bill reads out the instructions for the day: the wind is expected to veer to the south and pick up to over ten knots, but that doesn’t matter for now, as conditions are calm and we have the whole of Lasham airfield to play with before the gliding club opens its hangar doors at nine.

With the infectious enthusiasm gripping everyone, crew members appear with parts of their aircraft. Marshals are turning up from all corners, wearing their high-visibility jackets and using all modes of personal transport. This could be a pedal cyclists’ rally, with all the different designs on show. I count several chopper-like machines, a hybrid made out of two cycle frames, and one timekeeper riding around in a Sinclair C5. There is a real feeling of community spirit and, despite it being a competition, it is very noticeable how the teams are all helping each other.

With the Airglow fuselage now sitting in its cradle of two fishing rod holders, crew members are bolting the wings together and making adjustments using sticky tape.

Team Betterfly have pulled out what can only be described as a flying bathtub, but it looks terrific. When I ask the team manager, David Barford, why he has named his team ‘Betterfly’, he says simply that “it had better fly or else”. With a wingspan of 22m, wing area of 33.1m� and empty weight of 40kg, why not?

The third team to appear is the aeronautical team from Southampton University. With a history of constructing a series of human-powered aircraft in the past, notably its famed HPA SUMPAC, flown by Derek Piggott in November 1961, the team is now led by Dr Alexander Forrester. Under his guidance, they are attaching their 20m span wing to a normal looking road racing bike.

Bath University had unfortunately pulled its HPA ‘Noctule’ out of the competition the night before, due to the wing detaching itself from the main body of the aircraft.

However one other team still in one piece is John Edgley’s EA12 project. Edgley, who is well known for the unique Optica aircraft, is using the event as a test bed for his latest HPA?the only design with a canard wing. Whilst it is an interesting design, it does look as if it should go backwards. It’s a beautiful morning and, with no wind and the haze burning off, all teams move their HPAs gently to the threshold of Lasham’s Runway 27 for the first task.

With the three remaining teams still preparing their aircraft, the P&M Airglow is the first to go, with an attempt on a 500m flight down the runway. Having warmed up on a team pedal cycle, pilot Mike Truelove is launched down the runway with two runners on the flying wires and a pusher on the keel. After fifty feet or so, Airglow gently lifts off and accelerates away, its wings taking up a majestic curve as it floats above the runway, tracked by over thirty runners, cars, cameramen, marshals... and the ambulance. It is awesome to see this huge bird fly past gently, no more than 20ft off the ground. The second flight proves to be even more successful, pilot Robin Kraike managing to fly the full 1.7km length of the runway.

David Bedford’s Team Betterfly is also enjoying a successful last day, flying over 500m as well as accomplishing an unassisted take off with its new propeller ?which looks like it has been borrowed from the local wind turbine. The aerodynamics have also been improved for the last day of flying by the installation of a very natty wrap-around pod, allowing us to see only the pilot’s head.

While the Southampton team is full of enthusiasm, it is having problems with directional stability in flight. The flight controls comprise a model aircraft radio control unit bolted to the front of the handlebars. The twitchy handling bestowed by this system is giving the pilots no end of problems. Time and again a wing drops, resulting in a slow-motion ground loop?quite entertaining for those trying to follow on cycles.

The breakthrough comes when the R/C unit is handed to Phil Huddleston, a past British radio-control model aircraft champion for carrier deck flying, who operates the flying controls from a following vehicle. All the person in the aircraft has to do now is concentrate on pedalling. With the new system working quite satisfactorily, the question is who is the pilot in this situation?Dr Alex Forrester, who is doing all the pedalling, or Phil Huddleston, who is controlling the aircraft from the comfort of a following car?

Sadly John Edgley makes the decision to pull the EA12 from the competition, although he continues to experiment for development purposes. Despite looking very precarious, after some fine tuning to the pitch control he manages to make some encouraging small hops, albeit in kangaroo fashion. An interesting feature of his design is a small electric ‘helper’ motor, which gives an output of 1kw and eases the load for the pilot.

The rest of the morning is up taken with landing accuracy tasks, unassisted take offs and Team Betterfly achieving a successful slalom result as it weaves from side to side down the runway.

A winner emerges

The event came to a close at 9am, prize giving taking place in one of the Lasham club houses, followed by lunch.

The winner of the inaugural HPA 2012 Icarus Cup was P&M Aviation’s Robin Kraike. It was certainly an emotional moment for an inspirational man who nearly lost his life in a microlight accident three years ago and who has since devoted his energy and skills to getting fit again.

As I conclude my report, we are surrounded by talk of the Olympics and the amazing achievements of individual athletes. I believe that human-powered flying is a sport with a very interesting future. Not only do the ground crew have to be fit and the aeronautical engineers prepared to implement new ideas, but the pilot has also to be a highly trained athlete to generate sufficient power to take off, stay airborne and land safely. I look forward to the day that we have a human powered aircraft category as an official sport in the Olympics.