University of Maryland students close in on the human-powered helicopter prize.
- By Paul Glenshaw
- Air & Space magazine, January 2013
(Page 3 of 3)
Suddenly, everything had changed. The Everest-like summit of the Sikorsky prize—the three-meter mark—was tantalizingly close. Any thought of the project winding down vanished, especially as everyone gathered to see the first video of Atlas leaving the ground in Ontario. The competition was real.
“It was definitely exciting,” says Atlas co-designer Robertson. “We were always thinking, How quickly do we need to progress? How quickly are they progressing?” Atlas clearly could fly, and had something Gamera did not: directional controls—specifically, the ability to pitch and roll. On a 15-second flight, Todd Reichert drifted out of the 10-meter box; using the controls for the first time, he came right back in. There was little word from California about Neal Saiki, but the Gamera II team knew that he’d flown too.
Back in Maryland, the team’s time in their rented space was running out—the three-meter mark could not wait. On August 30, I came to the recreation center as the team prepared. A series of short tuning flights took most of the day. As the afternoon became evening, the team’s confidence grew, buoyed by Gamera II’s steady performance and one of the most enormous pizza deliveries I’d ever seen. At about 9 p.m., Colin Gore was ready.
I stood at the far end of the gym, well out of the way, shooting pictures. Several students were nearby, carefully monitoring video cameras. Gore cranked Gamera II hard and flew straight up—even higher than Enerson. Through my viewfinder, I could see him heading down, and right for us. Fast. We had to run for it. The helicopter slid into the ground, bashing into a cameraman, one rotor striking the ground. With a huge crunch, Gamera II twisted itself up and collapsed onto the floor.
After several moments of stunned silence, the most remarkable thing happened. Rather than recoiling in shock and defeat, the team joyfully swarmed over the wounded machine, talking, pointing with amazement at the twisted wreckage, and tweeting pictures. Gore posed by a twisted truss with a goofy “Oops” grin and shrug. But it was a reaction reserved for everyone under the age of 30. Pines, Chopra, the NAA observer, every non-student, and I all stood there, arms crossed, with serious expressions. But the team instinctively knew they could handle the setback. They still had three whole days left in the gym.
And three days later, Gamera II was repaired, and Enerson was on deck. Tim and I came to see if they’d actually go for the prize. After hours of testing and trimming, Staruk gave the all clear, and Enerson rose, clearly higher than ever before. Staruk called at him to come down, and just like Colin, he started drifting. About four feet from the floor, Gamera II snapped with a hideous pop. Truss arms shot up in the air. Enerson was dumped onto the floor.
He was fine, but Gamera II was done—for now. Two of the repairs made after Gore’s crash had failed. The team’s time in the gym was over. But the altitude sensors had great news: Enerson had hit 2.87 meters, or 9.4 feet. They were less than six inches from the summit.
On a late September afternoon, the Gamera team gathered around a grill, just to hang out. The team continues to grow: My son has joined as an intern. Henry Enerson had another surprise: He walked into a team meeting followed by his identical twin brother, also an athlete, who quickly became a fourth engine. Pines gave the okay to go for the prize, and while new parts are built and broken ones replaced, the team’s renewed focus is on control. They hope to make a record-setting flight before the end of the year.
Robertson and Reichert in Ontario are building up funds for a second attempt, confident that their control system will keep Atlas in one spot. After several unpublicized flights, Neal Saiki gave Upturn, complete with its electronic control system, to his alma mater in San Luis Obispo. A new generation of Cal Poly students can enter the race.
Every team has its challenges, but all are confident about one thing: The Sikorsky Prize will soon be won.
Paul Glenshaw is director of the Discovery of Flight Foundation and co-producer of the 2009 documentary Barnstorming.