Named after the cautious father of legendarily ill-fated Icarus, the Daedalus aircraft were the culmination of work on human flight at MIT.

The Daedalus 88 aircraft holds the FAI world record for distance and duration of human powered flight with a 71.5-mile flight lasting just short of four hours between Iraklion on Crete to the island of Santorini.


Building on British tradition for aviation firsts, the Southampton University Man Powered Aircraft (SUMPAC) was the first human powered aircraft to make an officially authenticated flight on November 9th 1961. Made from nylon sheet, aluminum, and balsa wood, it was invented and constructed by students at Southampton University to win the Kremer prize. This was a competition a little like today's X-Prizes, designed to promote innovation in flight, and funded by a British industrialist and administered by the Royal Aeronautical society. SUMPAC was never able to complete the one-mile figure-of-8 course needed for the prize.

Gossamer Condor

The Gossamer Condor won the Kremer prize on August 23 1977 in California, with amateur cyclist and hang-glider pilot Bryan Allen at the controls. Built by the American team Paul MacCready and Peter Lissaman of AeroVironment, the aircraft had an unusual control setup a little reminiscent of the Wright brothers' aircraft and was made of lightweight plastics and aluminum spars in a very aerodynamic shape. It could take off under human power alone, thanks to its light mass of just 70 pounds and a 96-foot wingspan.

Gossamer Albatross

Built by the same Aerovironment team as the Gossamer Condor, but with lessons learned in propulsion, aerodynamics, and a carbon fiber frame, the Albatross weighed just 70 pounds and had a 98-foot wingspan. On June 12 1979, piloted by Bryan Allen, it flew for 2 hours and 49 minutes, at a top speed of 18 miles an hour, and successfully crossed the English Channel. This flight won the second Kremer prize, designed to replicate the famous crossing by Louis Blériot in 1909.

Gamera Human Helicopter

Students of the Clark School of Engineering and staff from the school's Alfred Gessow Rotorcraft Center have put together the remarkable Gamera II helicopter, a development of its earlier Gamera I. On June 21 2012 Gamera II set a new flight duration record, approved by the NAA, flying for 49.9 seconds in smooth, controlled air in an indoor environment.

Gamera II weighs just 71 pounds empty, but thanks to engineering advances since earlier human flight efforts, it manages to include four rotors each nearly 43 feet across.

Gerhardt Cycleplane

Made in 1923 by Dr W. Frederick Gerhardt, head of Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Michigan, the Gerhardt Cycleplane ranks as one of the strangest of all human powered aircraft ever to achieve real flight. It had seven lightweight wings stacked on top of each other.

It's also possibly the earliest. Originally towed into the air behind a car, it made its first flight in July 1923 at McCook Field, Dayton, Ohio, with Gerhardt able to keep it in the air under his own power for short intervals. Once he managed to fly it into the air himself--for just 20 feet of flight.

Zaschka Human-Power Aircraft

Built by Engelbert Zaschka in Germany, the eponymous monoplane aircraft, which had a pretty conventional aerodynamic design, managed to take off under human power alone at the Berlin Tempelhof airport on 11 July 1934.

Despite this amazing success, the pilot's muscles only managed to keep it aloft for about 60 feet.

Hatfield Puffin

On November 16 1961, just after SUMPAC, the British Hatfield Puffin first flew. It was built by employees of (and supported by) the de Haviland Aircraft Company--the same firm which made the legendary Tiger Moth, Mosquito, Swallow (an aircraft among the first through the sound barrier), and the world's first commercial jet airliner the Comet.

After many attempts Puffin managed a best flight of some 908 meters, although this reportedly exhausted its pilot John Wimpenny. His record, however, stood for 10 years.

[Image via Aerosociety]

Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new FastCompany.com?

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

9 Incredible, Human-Powered Aircrafts—And The Gutsy Pilots Who Flew Them

The human-powered flight craze got a little crazier this morning when a Japanese team said they'd be attempting to beat the human-propelled plane record in a vehicle made of polystyrene (yes, that's roughly the same annoying plastic-y foam that protects nearly every device you've ever bought inside its box, or which leaks from your comfy beanbag's torn seams). Team Aeroscepsy is planning on having a professional cyclist act as the engine for the Gokurakutombo aircraft in January, as the stamina training required for continuous pedaling efforts would be tricky for a typical person, no matter how light they were. The video below shows the team's beautifully smooth 2010 test flight.

Gokurakutombo is an unlikely vehicle weighing in at just 81 pounds, but with a wingspan half that of a Boeing 747—the huge surface area of this wing is needed to lift the mass of a person at the kind of slow speeds human muscles can manage. The voyage is intended to be a four-hour flight that's 75 miles long, to beat the previous record set by a U.S. university in their Daedalus aircraft in 1988. Both vehicles are building on the record of the first human-powered aircraft capable of controlled, sustained flight—the Gossamer Condor, which first flew in 1977. More recently human-powered flight has got even more advanced thanks to ultralight engineering materials like carbon fiber—and this has even enabled human-powered helicopters to take to the sky...okay, the calm air inside a university gymnasium, but you know what we mean.

Add New Comment