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.
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