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Human-powered helicopter gets off the ground

Engines are overrated. The Gamera human-powered helicopter managed its first flight with a record-setting attempt at the University of Maryland.

Gamera human-powered helicopter
University of Maryland biology student Judy Wexler sits in the Gamera. It doesn't look like a turtle.
Essential Eye Photographics, Earl Zubkoff

The history of flight is notoriously fickle. Orville Wright managed to stay aloft for just 12 seconds in his plane in 1903. Last week, Judy Wexler hovered a few inches above the ground for about 4 seconds in a human-powered helicopter, but it was enough to put a mark in the history books.

The University of Maryland has played host to the creation of the Gamera helicopter, named for a giant flying turtle superhero that can give Godzilla a run for his money.

Gamera is usually seen flying by spinning around rapidly like a big, scaly Frisbee. The helicopter version features four 42-foot-long rotors in an X pattern with the pilot at the center. Counting the 110-pound Wexler, a University of Maryland biology student, the whole contraption weighs in at a slim 210 pounds worth of balsa, mylar, carbon fiber, and foam. Hand and foot pedals provide the power.

Gamera is chasing a lofty goal. The American Helicopter Society's Sikorsky Prize offers $250,000 for a human-powered helicopter that hovers for 60 seconds, stays within a 10-meter square space, and reaches a 3-meter altitude. That's a tall order.

Just getting into the air nets the Maryland team a world record. There have been unofficial human-powered helicopter flights in the past, but Gamera is expecting to get the official record courtesy of the National Aeronautic Association.

It has taken 50 students around two years to get a little hovering action going. It pays to be patient when chasing the Sikorsky Prize. It has been around since 1980 with no winners yet. At this rate, Sir Richard Branson could show up an any moment to turn human-powered helicopters into a major commercial venture.