Los Altos Academy of Engineering

Human Powered Airplane: History

Human Powered Airplane

The Idea
Three years ago, a group of seniors found a video from the annual Birdman Competition held in Japan. In this competition, private companies and organizations construct large gliders and human powered aircraft, and see who can get them to travel the farthest when pushed off a cliff overlooking a harbor. Seeing this video inspired the seniors to construct their own human powered airplane.

They began by purchasing a radio-controlled airplane and using the wing as a model to build their own scale wing. Unfortunately, this wing had many problems, so rather then working down a dead end; they began to talk to some people from the Birdman Competition. The people they contacted told them about a man named Dr. Paul MacCready, the first person to ever successfully fly a human powered aircraft in a "Figure 8," winning him the Kremer Prize from the British Crown. After purchasing copies of Dr. Paul MacCready's biography of the project and a video documenting his first plane, the Gossamer Condor, the seniors finally had an opportunity to meet Dr. MacCready and talk to him about building an HPA. Dr. MacCready gave the seniors a copy of the blueprints of the Condor, along with a lot of advice, and the stern warning that HPAs aren't a good project for high school students.

Work Begins
Using what knowledge they could, the seniors began work on the airplane. They did a tremendous amount of fundraising and PR work, getting several thousand dollars, which went towards purchasing materials. By the end of the school year, the HPA team had grown to include a group of sophomores in addition to the existing seniors. This team had completed the design of the airplane, working from the Condor blueprints and then modifying them until they had their own, unique, airplane. They worked tirelessly through the summer, until early August, when they decided to make an attempt to fly the still-incomplete airplane.

San Bernardino Airport
In August, the hottest month of the year, we moved almost the entire Engineering Tech lab out to an open hangar at the San Bernardino Airport, where we would attempt to complete the plane and fly it. After working for seven days, we had completed all of the wing sections and had them attached to the fuselage. For the first time, the airplane started looking like just that. Unfortunately, we discovered that our tail section was far too heavy and that it would never fly in its present state. Rather than just pack up and leave, we decided to try to pull test the airplane. This involves attaching a rope to a bicycle and pulling the plane at a low speed to try and achieve lift. When we decided to try the test, it was about six in the afternoon, and we were all exhausted from working, but had renewed energy, thinking we would see our creation get off the ground. Without discussing the flight plan, we hastily started the test, pushing it at about 10 miles per hour, much faster than we should have. The plane definitely got lift- too much, in fact. With so much lift, the left wing went into a stall, and the strain on the wing caused one of the tubes to fail and bend. Hearts broken, we tried to make a new wing section the next day, but it just wasn't meant to be because that afternoon, a sand storm rolled in and destroyed most of our wing sections.

The following year was spent reorganizing the plane and redesigning a lot of the problematic components. Being that the remaining team members (the rest went off to college) were all juniors, and previously the scrubs, there was a lack of organization and leadership. We were able to talk to a lot of people who have worked with airplanes, including Paul Illian, a Boeing engineer working on a state of the art HPA that he hopes will be the first to fly 100 miles nonstop. By the end of the year, we had successfully redesigned and rebuilt much of the plane. Currently, the plane is nearly complete, for the second time. We are planning on taking it out to March Air Force Base in Riverside over spring break for another attempt at flying it.
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