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Those Incredible Flying Machines : The Daedalus Aircraft Is a Technical Feat, but the Real Marvels Are the Athletes Who Fly It

January 14, 1988|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

LANCASTER, Calif. — It looked like a sequel to "Revenge of the Nerds." "Faster! Pick it up!" the gawky MIT aeronautical engineering student barked at the panting athlete he had strapped into a computerized exercise contraption. While one grimaced, the other smiled slightly and punched buttons on a calculator.

What looked like like torture, though, was really teamwork. The nerds and the jocks have united in this high desert town, and if all goes well, they'll achieve something neither could do alone.

So far, their goal has only been accomplished in myth--by a Greek architect and sculptor named Daedalus who constructed wings of wax and feathers and escaped the wrath of King Minos by flying from the island of Crete to Sicily.

The modern team, which calls itself the Daedalus project, has constructed its wings--as well as its fuselage, tail section, and other plane parts--from more high tech materials.

With one obvious exception.

According to the rules the team set for itself, the engine must be of the same design that supposedly powered the original Daedalus to freedom: A heart, lungs, muscles and brain . . . i.e., a human.

Designed After the Original

The Daedalus project is largely the work of MIT, but Yale University, NASA, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society are also participating in the research, and United Technologies and the Shaklee health food corporations are lending financial and technical support.

"Our basic purpose is two-fold, education and research," said project manager John Langford. As a small-scale, hands-on engineering project, Daedalus will provide the same sort of research and development that goes into a major aeronautic project, "but the scale is much more workable. . . . It's a lot easier to understand," Langford said.

Part of the educational goal in choosing such a romantic project is to close the perceived gap between the "two cultures" of technology and the rest of society, Langford said. The original Daedalus was a Renaissance man before his time, the da Vinci of his era, Langford said. And the modern Daedalus crew hopes to demonstrate that "art and engineering all stem from the basic human drive to create something."

The plan in coming to Lancaster was to provide the project's five-member team of athletes with lots of flight time, first on the Eagle, and then on the lighter, more fragile Daedalus. If all goes well in Lancaster, one of three pilots culled from the five will attempt to pedal 74 miles from Crete to the Greek island of San Torini this spring, more than doubling the existing record for human-powered flight.

Unfortunately, the desert was hardly dry. Storms soaked the lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base on which test flights occur, and as of last week the team was far behind schedule.

The athletes, most of whom are top competitive cyclists, kept training, pushing their bicycling regimen up to 400 miles a week in the nearby mountains. The engineers and students, most of whom are from MIT, kept mulling and calculating, modifying the plane and their plans. And they continued tuning up the plane's five human engines.

From Athletes to Pilots

From the beginning, the team has been running batteries of tests on the athletes, checking such factors as "fuel delivery, heat removal, oxygen consumption," said Steven Bussolari), the MIT professor in charge of turning the athletes into pilots and coordinating the human factors aspects of the program.

"From a physiological standpoint, there's little understanding of . . . what happens to human physiology in long endurance events," Bussolari said. The Daedalus research will lend understanding to the problems faced by other types of pilots, by athletes and it will be interesting as basic science.

"The beauty of the project is that it's bringing so many (research projects) together," Bussolari added. ". . . You could solve a lot of these same problems on simulators. But it would be harder to get people motivated," he said. "It has something to do with the human need to push frontiers."

"Motivation is a tremendous factor," agreed Glenn Tremml, who flew the Light Eagle to a world-record-setting 36.6 mile flight last January. But Tremml, who is the only athlete with previous human-powered flight experience, added: "Of the five of us here, I'm the most skeptical (of motivation's power). I see tremendous physical limits to our possibilities.

"Maybe that's why I'm not as great an athlete as they are," added Tremml, who is taking a year from medical school to work on the project. "They think that as long as they believe strongly enough, they can do it. I think as long as they have enough water and calories. . . "

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