MOJAVE — The team that set a new distance record for human-powered flight in January is back in Southern California with a new plane and new test pilots to resume preparing for a 72-mile flight from the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Ocean to mainland Greece next March.
The new plane, called the Daedalus, is 20 pounds lighter than the 92-pound Eagle, in which medical student Glenn Tremml set the endurance record by flying 37.2 miles in 2 hours, 13 minutes and 14 seconds over Edwards Air Force Base.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology team, which built both planes, has come to this high desert town to take advantage of the still, early morning air for testing and training flights of both the Daedalus and the Eagle.
The team is temporarily ensconced here at the same Mojave Airport hangar where the Voyager airplane was housed before its historic round-the-world flight without refueling nearly a year ago.
Most of the group's planned three months of testing will be conducted over the dry lake bed at nearby Edwards Air Force Base.
The project draws its name from the ancient Mycenean myth in which the master craftsman, Daedalus, constructed wings of feathers, wax and thread so that he and his son, Icarus, could escape from imprisonment in King Minos's Labyrinth on Crete. Daedalus escaped, but Icarus perished when he flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax on his wings, causing him to plunge into the ocean.
The $400,000 Daedalus, which is expected to arrive in California after Thanksgiving, looks remarkably like its Eagle predecessor, although its 112-foot wingspan is two feet shorter.
But the two can be told apart easily because Daedalus's wing is shocking pink--the result of using a special high-density foam for shaping the wings. The new foam provides a smoother surface than the foam used in Eagle and should make the plane fly more efficiently, although the team will not know for sure until they have actually flown it.
In designing Daedalus, the team saved weight by using high-strength fiber-reinforced plastics for the main spars in the airframe.
Daedalus will take off from an airport on Crete, thus adding three to five miles to the originally planned 69-mile flight, which was to have begun on a 1,000-foot-high cliff on the island.
But as a result of its design, the Daedalus is not as strong or rigid as the Eagle, according to Peggie Scott, the team's administrative officer.
"We didn't want to risk flying in the turbulence off the cliff," she explained.
The first attempt is scheduled for March 15, but weather conditions will dictate the actual flight date. The flight is expected to take 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 hours, depending on the wind.
Tremml, 27, is back as chief pilot for the team, but the three other pilots, cyclists all, are new. They are Kanellos Kanellopolus, 30, a 13-time Greek cycling champion and a member of his country's Olympic cycling team; Greg Zack, 26, a U.S. professional cyclist of Greek descent, and Erik Schmidt, 25, a full-time amateur cyclist from San Diego who has trained with the U.S. Olympic Cycling Team.
Lois McCallin, a computer programmer and analyst who set three women's records in the Eagle here last January, is also back to help train the pilots.
Each prospective pilot will require two to four days of special preparation to reach maximum readiness for the Crete-to-Greece flight. Thus, one pilot each day will be ready to make the flight, weather permitting.
Because the selection of the pilot will be "purely by chance . . . there is very little competitiveness among the pilots--at least not yet," Zack said.
Each pilot is eager to make the flight, but perhaps none as eager as Kanellopolus.
"We all have the same reasons (for wanting to do it), but I have one reason more--because I am Greek," he said.