There is nothing simple about human-powered flight, but that is the intriguing goal behind a remarkable aircraft that lifted off the ground for the first time on Saturday at Half Moon Bay Airport.
The project – dubbed Dead Simple Human-Powered Airplane – is the brainchild of Alec Proudfoot. It’s been years in the making and Saturday’s achievement was a soaring one for him and the 300 volunteers who designed and built the aircraft over 12,000 hours – all of it dreaming of such a day.
Volunteers from around the Bay Area gathered at the airport as early as 4 a.m. on Saturday. They had arranged for the runways to be closed from 6 to 8 a.m. so that they could see the fruition of their dream.
The aircraft is essentially a super-light recumbent bicycle with wings. The crew brought it to Half Moon Bay in a specially designed trailer, but some assembly was required. They came to the Coastside airport because the runway was long enough – designed to accommodate commercial aircraft – and with so little traffic on an early weekend morning that it could be closed for a private endeavor.
The other thing the dreamers needed was a still morning. Anything more than a 5-mph breeze would scuttle the test. Saturday’s weather held.
The result was a triumphant flight of 765 feet that never got higher than five feet off the ground. By comparison, the famed Wright brothers’ first flight was a mere 120 feet, and it would change the world. Proudfoot was ecstatic when it was all over.
“It was really great,” Proudfoot said. “As a first flight, that was sort of amazing.”
It was a big step for a crew that set out to build a human-powered aircraft as quickly as possible for no more than the price of a new car, and to have fun doing it.
There have been many attempts to build human-powered flying machines, some of them successful. But it remains a daunting task.
“This is much, much harder to do than people think,” said Glenn Reynolds, a past president of the Half Moon Bay Pilots’ Association and a vice president of the Experimental Aircraft Association, Half Moon Bay Chapter. “It’s the equivalent of a solo space flight.”
The problem is simple. It has to do with the power-to-weight ratio. How do you generate enough power to lift the weight of the pilot and plane? DaSH project engineers have designed an airplane that is half the weight of the pilot but has a wingspan of a modern 737 jet.
Proudfoot says a pilot would need to generate about 300 watts to maintain flight. To give a rough comparison, he says that is similar to a bicyclist riding up Tunitas Creek Road to Skyline … “fast.” Coastsiders who take the beachcomber out for a leisurely ride on the Coastal Trail are generating about 100 watts. Proudfoot said that a particularly athletic, elite pilot could conceivably keep the aircraft airborne for hours.
“I’m out of shape and overweight, but I could probably pilot it to the end of the runway,” said Proudfoot, who was the pilot for Saturday's maiden voyage.
Proudfoot has his own engineering consultancy and is a former Google engineer. He’s also worked on alternative fuel vehicles and has piloted helicopters, airplanes, gyro-copters and other insults to gravity.
He says the project is, in part, a nod to his original professional inspirations. In 1979, an American engineer named Paul MacCready Jr. designed a very similar-looking aircraft, the Gossamer Albatross, which was pedaled across the English Channel. Subsequent successful human-powered aircraft often have been multi-million-dollar projects. Originally, Proudfoot said he wanted to construct his for about the price of a new car.
“Well, it’s an expensive new car,” he said on Monday. “This is my Tesla.”
Proudfoot and his team had hoped to fly again on Sunday morning. They repaired a malfunction with a tail mount and were ready to give it a go, but rain precluded a Sunday morning flight.
The next steps include longer flights and training more athletic pilots, he said. He would like to fly again in the first couple of months of 2016, and they might return to Half Moon Bay, he said. He is also looking into salt flats or other flat, windless desert locations conducive to lift off.
Whatever happens to his project from here out, Proudfoot considers the project a success.
“It’s been a fun, educational and social experience,” he said.