Dreams of Human-Powered Flight: The Myth of Daedalus
Model of one of Leonardo's flying machine designs, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2006. (Public Domain)
Flying Like Daedalus
The glorious notion of flying by human power alone has inspired numerous intrepid modern inventors to find ways to overcome the problems of aerodynamics and power-to-weight ratio. One clever suggestion was to find a way to use foot-pedaling energy. The notion was long considered to be impossible. Aeronautical engineers believed that no aircraft could be light enough to fly on such a limited source of power and yet be robust enough to carry a pilot, who of course would have to possess extraordinary strength and endurance. One of the first attempts was a "cycleplane" built in 1923 but it only achieved 20-foot (six meter) hops. In 1977, advances in fashioning strong, lightweight materials allowed the US aeronautical engineer Paul MacCready to build a human-powered plane, flown by an amateur cyclist and hang-glider pilot. He reached the modest altitude of 10 feet and flew just over a mile.
What if Daedalus could have invented a lightweight sail-wing apparatus, something like a modern hang glider? Early modern versions had low lift-to-drag ratios, but now thanks to aluminum alloy and composite frames covered with ultra-light laminated polyester film, hang glider pilots can soar for hours on thermal updrafts at altitudes of thousands of feet, simply shifting their body weight, with little exertion, much like the dynamic soaring ability of albatrosses. It's interesting that ancient Chinese experimented with human soaring aloft with large, streamlined kites, a primitive type of uncontrolled "hang gliding." With a modern hang glider, Daedalus could have island hopped from Crete to Sicily.
The Daedalus 88 on its last flight for the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, California. (Public Domain)
In 1988, inspired to replicate Daedalus's flight pattern in the Aegean, the Greek Olympic cycling champion Kanellos Kanellopoulos skimmed over the Aegean Sea from the island of Crete to the island of Santorini in an ultra-light craft, Daedalus 88 , propelled by pedals. The record-setting flight of 72 miles (116 km), at an altitude of 15-30 feet (4.5-9 meters), took four hours of intense pedaling. The experiment was sponsored by the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In 2012, the Icarus Cup was established by the Royal Aeronautical Society in England, to promote the sport of human-powered flight. How amazed Daedalus would be if only he could witness the continuing legacies of his epic flight to freedom.
Top image: The fall of Icarus, circa 1635. (Public Domain)
Morris, Sarah. 1992. Daidalos and the Origins of Greek Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
McFadden, Robert. 1988. "Daedalus Flies from Myth into Reality." New York Times, April 24. [Online] Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/04/24/world/daedalus-flies-from-myth-into-reality.html