May 17, 2011
By Alton K. Marsh
Engineering students at the University of Maryland built a human-powered helicopter that flew successfully prior to graduation— just as they had hoped. Two other competing teams have achieved liftoff for a few seconds, but since none of them have claimed a world record, the University of Maryland has filed with the National Aeronautic Association for one. The gangly craft, named Gamera after a giant flying turtle in Japanese monster movies, lifted several inches off the ground for several seconds.
It succeeded on an earlier attempt, but on the first flight a judge’s camera was out of focus, so pilot Judy Wexler, 24, a 107-pound biology major and cyclist who volunteered for the attempt, had to again furiously flail at footpedals and a hand crank. She then successfully hovered the 100-pound craft.
Still, the chief prize remains. More than 30 years ago, the American Helicopter Society International set a goal of a human-powered helicopter that could hover at 10 feet for one minute. In 1980, Sikorsky Aircraft offered $20,000 for the achievement; increasing it to $250,000 two years ago after the University of Maryland announced it would pursue the prize.
It was fitting that the project was named for a turtle. The school mascot is a Terrapin, and the school battle cry is “Fear the turtle.”
Wexler, who had to pedal at 120 rpm to get the 43-foot rotors to turn at 18 rpm, was the first woman pilot to make the attempt, something that will stay in the record books even if a male pilot wins the Sikorsky award. A university representative said Wexler is looking forward to her career as a biology researcher and has not expressed a desire to become a pilot.
The craft was made of balsa, wood, foam, Mylar, and carbon fiber. The project has captured the commencement spotlight for the engineering team, and possibly and more important, a few job offers.
AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.
A new FAA policy on obstructive sleep apnea that addresses many of the concerns raised by AOPA is scheduled to take effect March 2.
AOPA and the National Business Aviation Association have jointly filed an amicus, or friend of the court, brief in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals as part of the ongoing legal battle over the future of Santa Monica Municipal Airport.
AOPA worked with the flight training industry and FAA to quickly resolve a problem that suddenly put many rating applications on hold.
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