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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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.

About Paul Glenshaw

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

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