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 exercise.

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 the Condor.

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 dead-still air.

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:
several historical sources

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