Researchers and graduate students at the University of Maryland recently moved closer to realizing one of Leonardo da Vinci’s more outlandish visions when a human-powered helicopter piloted by biology student Judy Wexler hovered briefly over the university’s gymnasium floor. While not yet officially confirmed by the National Aeronautics Association, this remarkable (if somewhat dubious) achievement set a world’s record for the longest flight by a woman piloting human-powered helicopter. It’s duration? About four seconds.
What could inspire such a literal flight of fancy? Well, aside from good old-fashioned scientific curiosity, there’s the Sikorsky Prize, which promises $250,000 and a place in history for the first human-powered helicopter to reach an altitude of ten feet and stay aloft for at least sixty seconds. A male member of Japan’s Nihon Aero Student group set a previous overall record when he managed to keep his human-powered helicopter airborne for 20 seconds, but that was way back in 1994. With the benefit of more advanced materials and design, the University of Maryland group hopes to surpass the old record and eventually claim the Sikorsky Prize, even thought it’s not clear if Wexler or another pilot will do the huffing and puffing.
The odd craft, named Gamera after the monster of Godzilla movie fame, is constructed of carbon fiber, mylar, and balsa wood. According to Popsci, it weighs in at about 200 lbs., including the pilot. Despite its light weight, the Gamera is nearly as large as the fictitious flying turtle it’s named after, with four 42-foot rotors taking up a space nearly one-third the size of a football field. The bizarre craft’s historic flight can be seen on a popular YouTube video.
Is there a human-powered helicopter in your future? In two words, probably not. Human-powered flying machines may capture the imagination, but there’s little chance they’ll be coming to a cloud near you anytime soon. Even so, in this wired age, there is something undeniably cool about them.
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