Pedal Power

University of Maryland students close in on the human-powered helicopter prize.

Henry Enerson, a University of Maryland freshman who runs track, is both lightweight and strong, which makes him an ideal powerplant for Gamera II. (Earl Zubkoff)
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Moving to a larger facility off campus in late August, the team improved the helicopter, extending the rotor blades and stiffening their tips. On August 28, I arrived at the indoor track in time to see Colin Gore make a duration attempt. He began pedaling, lifting easily into the air. As the blades spun, a familiar silence and tension descended; he kept flying, far longer than anything before. After an astonishing 65 seconds, he came down gently.

For the first time, a Sikorsky Prize marker had fallen. Once again, there were cheers, group photos, and elevated adrenaline. And then, later that afternoon, it was Henry Enerson’s turn to fly.

Enerson was an incoming freshman; he hadn’t yet attended his first class. A track athlete and rock climber, he also weighed 10 pounds less than Gore or Glusenkamp. He had already made a few flights, getting used to this new form of exertion. Now he was going to make an altitude attempt. Elizabeth Weiner, the team member who manages the pilots, half-jokingly turned herself into a human altimeter with brightly colored stripes taped across her jeans and shirt at one-foot intervals, so the others could get a quick measure of how Enerson did. Just for laughs, she taped her arms so that, stretched up, they could mark six feet.

Before Enerson’s flight, the team had the growing sense that the project might be reaching its limit. They’d set out to hit the one-minute mark, and that had just toppled. Pines and Chopra had discussed what appeared to be a threshold for how high Gamera II could go: somewhere above four feet. Enerson shocked them all.

Weiner stood next to the cockpit as Enerson began to pedal, tentatively holding one arm up in case he got higher than her waist. In seconds, he shot up over her head, then her completely outstretched arm. Enerson kept going—all the way to eight feet. Will Staruk shouted out the order to come down. After drifting backward for several feet, Enerson landed.

The gym erupted. Weiner collapsed to the floor in amazement. “We were in a state of shock,” says Pines. “How was he able to do that? What just happened?”

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.

About Paul Glenshaw

Paul Glenshaw is a frequent Air & Space contributor and writes from Silver Spring, Maryland.

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