In 1961, a group of Southampton aeronautical engineering students made aviation history with the world’s first human-powered flight. Fifty years later, students are revisiting the challenge using the latest technologies, opening up new possibilities in fields such as telecommunications and disaster management.
The maiden flight of the pedal-powered Southampton University Man Powered Aircraft (SUMPAC) took place on 9 November 1961. Covering a distance of 64 metres at around 20 miles per hour, the flight marked a historic moment; previous self-propelled craft had needed help to become airborne, whereas SUMPAC was able to take to the skies without assistance.
A single-seat craft with a 24-metre wingspan, SUMPAC flew several more times, achieving distances of more than half a mile. It is now on display at Solent Sky Museum.
The 50th anniversary of this pioneering achievement was marked in 2011 when students returned to the challenge of self-propelled flight. A team of 10 engineering undergraduates is designing the Southampton University Human Powered Aircraft (SUHPA), using the latest materials and innovations such as an autopilot unit to aid control of the aircraft. The craft will be entered into the Kremer International Sporting Aircraft Competition.
Although the aim of the Kremer competition is to promote the production of an aeroplane suited to athletic competition, the potential applications are much broader.
Dr Alex Forrester, of the University’s Computational Engineering and Design Research Group, explains: “Perhaps the application with the largest business potential involves harnessing the power of the sun. By adding an electric motor powered by photovoltaic solar cells to the original aircraft it could remain airborne indefinitely, opening up a wide range of possibilities.
“The fact that the SUHPA is designed to use an autopilot offers the possibility of an easy conversion to an unmanned air vehicle. The applications could include remote sensing, surveillance, telecommunications, meteorology, disaster management and earth science.”