To fly like a bird, an ability mankind has dreamed of throughout time. Even today with airline flights to virtually any location on earth, a common-place thing, the yearning for personal flight still persists.
The ancient world has many references to flight as being something for the Gods but not mortals. Mythological stories of flight such as that of Daedalus and his son Icarus, fleeing captivity, ended in Icarus falling to his death. Reports of other would-be flyers appear in history but with little reported success. In ancient China man-carrying kites were said to be used for aerial observation, the pilots being condemned men, were expendable.
Leonardo da Vinci put his mind to this quest for flight and produced designs for various types of apparatus that might achieve it. His drawings showed helicopters, parachutes, gliders and ornithopters. Without any other prime mover human power was intended to flap the wings emulating the actions of a bird. There is no evidence that Leonardo actually built any of these devices although modern day replicas of his gliders have been built and flown. Had he built and tried to fly the ornithopter it would have soon become apparent to him that it would not work with the limited power that a human can produce. In the end Leonardo’s work had no influence on future development of human flight as his manuscripts and drawings were hidden away and not rediscovered until modern times.
In the first half of the 19th century a Yorkshire baronet, Sir George Cayley, put his mind to human flight. It is he who laid the founding principles of how flight can be achieved and is credited with being the originator of the modern aeroplane. He designed and built the first human carrying aircraft which were gliders. Again lacking any suitable engine prevented any possibility of powered flight.
In the second half of the 19th century many would-be aviators started their researches on flight. In the 1890’s two German brothers Otto and Gustav Lilienthal developed gliders that were foot launched which they demonstrated in public, showing man could fly. Photographs appeared in newspapers around the world, showing man in flight. This spurred on other pioneers to produce hang gliders as a prelude to powered flight. In the UK, Percy Pilcher produced similar gliders and Octave Chanute in the USA developed foot launched gliders with a number of other enthusiasts.
During this time a few other would-be aeronauts had produced flying machines using steam power. Although some short flights were achieved, the steam power plants were not really suitable due to their weight and they had no idea how to fly them once in the air.
By building gliders to learn how to fly and then fitting a suitable engine was the way to go. This was the method adopted by the Wright brothers and in the first decade of the 20th century many others followed suit and got into the air with petrol fuelled engines. The idea of human powered flight was all but forgotten.
However the Dream persisted even though mechanical powered flight had been achieved. In 1913 a competition was sponsored by Peugeot for a human powered flight of 10m over level ground. A professional cyclist called Gabriel Poulain fitted wings to a bicycle and managed to win the prize in 1921 with a jump of 12m. The power was only applied whilst on the ground so the flight could not be sustained.
To power the aircraft in flight would require a way to apply human energy into thrust. This could be by flapping the wings as birds do or through a propeller as with mechanically powered aircraft. In Germany Dr Lippisch first tried the former by building a human powered ornithopter. It had to be catapult launched but the flapping, powered by a rowing action of the pilot, was said to have sustained the flight for a short distance.
Another prize was offered in Germany in the 1930’s for a human powered flight around two markers 500m apart. Although the competition was not won attempts were made with an aircraft called Mufli built by Helmut Haessler and Frank Villinger. Assisted take off was permitted via a catapult.
Next the Italian government offered a prize for a human powered flight of 1km. An aircraft called the Pedaliante was built by Enea Bossi and Vittorio Bonomi. It was said to have taken off by human power alone but most of the flights were catapult assisted. It did not win the prize.
The Second World War stopped any further attempts. After the war, Dan Perkins who had worked at RAE Cardington on balloons and other inflatables, considered making an inflatable aircraft. He built a series of craft to be human powered. Eventually the last, The Reluctant Phoenix, managed a number of flights inside the Cardington airship hangar although they were mainly in ground effect.
In the 1950’s a man powered committee was formed and became the Human Powered Aircraft Group of the Royal aeronautical Society in 1957. In November 1959 Henry Kremer, offered a prize for the first human powered aircraft to fly a figure-of-eight course around markers half a mile apart. This was to be administered by the Society to encourage and promote human powered flight.
In the 1960’s a number of groups took up the challenge to compete for the Kremer prize. The first to succeed in human-powered flight, taking off on human power alone and sustaining the flight under control was the SUMPAC group. It was built by Southampton University postgraduate students Ann Marsden, David Williams and Alan Lassiere. Derek Piggott was the pilot, having a great deal of experience in all types of aircraft and the best choice for the task.
Next to fly was Puffin1 built by a group from Hatfield mainly from the de Havilland Aircraft Company with John Wimpenny as chairman. Over the next two decades a number of groups and individuals built human powered aircraft both in the UK and abroad but the Kremer prize eluded them. A partial list of aircraft names is as follows:- Puffin 2 , Reluctant Phoenix, Linnet 1-5 in Japan, Malliga Aircraft in Australia, Dumbo, Jupiter designed by Chris Roper, Toucan that had two crew, Icarus in the USA used ground effect only to fly, Newbury Manflier, Chrysalis a biplane design.
During this time The Dream of Flight manifested itself in a returned interest of hang gliding. The development of a flexible wing by NASA engineer Francis Rogallo provided an easy to build design that was taken up by thousands of people that wanted to experience personal flight. One of those people was Paul MacCready, an American aeronautical engineer, and using the same simple construction techniques employed in hang glider construction he built the Gossamer Condor. The low speed, low-tech approach was successful and the Kremer figure of eight prize was won on 23rd August 1977. From there he went on to build the Gossamer Albatross which Bryan Allen pedaled across the English Channel on 12th June 1979 to win the cross channel prize which was less than the costs of making the attempt.
In more recent times The Icarus Cup competition was created in 2012 when the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Human Powered Flight Group introduced a sports competition for human powered aircraft. This was to encourage groups and individuals to take part in human powered flight and improve on aircraft design. The competition was then taken over by a newly formed group of enthusiasts and named the British Human Powered Flying Club (BHPFC) formed in 2014.
This club is affiliated to the British Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association which provides the insurance cover for the flying and running of competitions. Every year since, the BHPFC has run the Icarus Cup competition improving aircraft design and pilot performance. Unfortunately this year’s competition has been cancelled due to Covid-19.
The Great Race is a cross-channel flying competition to celebrate the first human powered flight by the SUMPAC group in 1961 and the Gossamer Albatross crossing of the channel in 1979.
A prize for the fastest crossing of the English Channel has been generously given to commemorate the achievements of Anne Marsden, David Williams and Derek Piggott for achieving the world’s first human powered flight in November 1961.
It is The Dream of Flight that drives people to achieve their desire for personal flight.