The concept of Human Powered Flight dates back about 3000 years with the
myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus, a Greek artisan created two
pairs of wings out of wax and feathers for his son Icarus and himself,
to escape the Labyrinth on Crete. Daedalus warned his son not to fly
too low, or the waves would swallow him up, nor too high, or the
sun would melt the wax on his wings. Unfortunately, the brash Icarus
flew too high, and he fell to his death in the Aegean Sea.
Let's flash forward a bit to the Renaissance. The period in between
is really not that interesting with respect to Human Powered flight,
unless you count pushing witches with brooms off cliffs to see if
they could fly. It was Leonardo da Vinci who sketched designs for a
number of flying machines. Da Vinci drew inspiration from birds,
designing constructions with flapping wings; since portable
engines weren't invented yet, his designs relied solely on human power.
It wasn't until much later that engineers realized that these
constructions were too heavy to operate; the moments of inertia to
move wings large enough to support a human are too great, and the muscles of
the arms simply aren't strong enough.
It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that human flight finally
became a possibility. The German engineer Otto Lilienthal studied the
flight of birds intensively, and made breakthrough advances in
aerodynamics and wing design. Lilienthal became the first person in
history to fly a significant distance in a home made glider (1891).
Other than gliders, Lilienthal also made several designs of propelled
flying machines with flapping wing constructions. These designs were not
successful due to the lack of a sufficient (human or mechanical
driven) power source.
In 1903, it seemed there was no more future for Human Powered Flight.
For the first time, the Wright Brothers flew a self-propelled
aircraft, and they relied on a combustion engine. This achievement
propelled (pun intended) the advancements of engine powered
airplanes up to this day.
A few individuals would not give up the dream of Human Powered
Flight. In 1933, a group in Frankfurt, Germany called the
Polytechnische Gesellschaft offered 5 000 marks for a human powered
airplane that could fly around two markers 500 meters apart. There was
much international interest in this competition but no one was able to
achieve the goals, even after the organizers increased the award to 10
000 marks in 1935.
In 1959, a wealthy British industrialist called Henry Kremer
offered several £5 000 awards for achievements in Human Powered
Flight. But the required technology and materials to claim the
prestigious Kremer prizes simply wasn't available. The prize money was
increased tenfold, but it took 18 years before the first prize was
awarded. In 1977, the Gossamer Condor won the first Kremer prize for flying
around two markers 800 meters apart; an achievement that the Wright
brothers had already done with their engine driven flyers a few decades before.
The Gossamer Condor was flown by cyclist Bryan L. Allen. In order
to sustain flight, Allen had to generate approximately 400 watts of
power. The plane had a 29 m. wingspan to generate enough lift, but this
generated so much drag that propelling the plane was a major physical
Both Kremer as well as the Gossamer Condor designer Paul B.
MacCready, Jr. were eager to push the envelope of Human Powered Flight.
This time, Henry Kremer offered £100 000 for the first plane to
cross the English Channel; a feat accomplished in 1909 by Louis
Bleriot using an engine driven plane. In 1979, MacCready's team won the
prize with the Gossamer Albatross, a streamlined, lighter version of
Another £20 000 Kremer prize went to a design team of the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for flying a triangular 1 500 m.
course in under three minutes (an average of 32 km/h). MIT's Monarch B
achieved this goal in 1983. The German plane Musculair won another
speed contest, flying at almost 50 km/h. However, many Kremer prizes remain
unclaimed: £50 000 for an aircraft flying a complex 40.5 km.
circuit. £10 000 for a human powered seaplane, and £50 000
for a plane that can fly under (minimal) wind conditions, instead of
The distance record for Human Powered flight is held by the
Daedalus; an American plane flown by the Greek Kanellos
Kanellopoulos. In 1988, this plane appropriately reenacted the mythical
flight of Daedalus and Icarus, flying 117 km. from Crete to
Santorini. Unfortunately, only 10 m. before reaching its destination,
a gust of wind broke the plane's tail boom. This time Daedalus
followed the mythological Icarus, and plunged into the Aegean.
Scientific American - October 1997
Human Powered Vehicles Association, Germany: http://www.hpv.org/club/?lang=en
several historical sources