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Human-Powered Plane Crashes in Test

February 10, 1988|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | Times Science Writer

Daedalus, the human-powered airplane that a Massachusetts Institute of Technology team hopes to fly from Crete to Greece this spring, has crashed in a training flight at Edwards Air Force Base.

The Sunday accident is expected to set back the team's training schedule, already delayed by rain and winds, by at least another two weeks.

If successful, the 74-mile Crete-to-Greece flight, now set for late April or May, will break the distance record for human-powered flight set at Edwards by medical student Glenn Tremml in January, 1987. Tremml flew a prototype of Daedalus, called the Eagle, 37.2 miles in 2 hours, 13 minutes and 14 seconds.

Amateur cyclist Erik Schmidt was 17 minutes into his maiden flight in the 70-pound Daedalus on Sunday morning when he attempted to make a right turn. During the turn, the left wing lifted suddenly, causing the right wing to strike the ground, followed by the fuselage.

Not Pilot Error

"It was definitely not pilot error," said Peggie Scott, the team's administrative officer. Scott speculated that the crash was the result of turbulence caused by solar heating of the dry lake bed where the tests were being conducted.

Schmidt was not injured, but both the fuselage and the 112-foot wing assembly were damaged. Scott estimated that repairs will require about two weeks after the plane is returned to MIT.

"We've said all along that the project is primarily a hands-on learning and education experience," said project director John Langford. "Now we'll have a chance to see what's involved in getting a damaged aircraft repaired and back into the air."

Meanwhile, the student, faculty and alumni team at MIT is rushing to complete construction of an identical backup plane. Scott said the team hopes to have the plane finished by next Wednesday. After that, it is to be trucked to California.

Sunday's flight was being conducted "to get the bugs out" of the Daedalus, Scott said. One earlier flight had shown, for example, that a control cable tended to slip off a pulley, forcing the pilot to land. Because of the bad weather, the team's five cyclist-pilots had so far managed a total of only one hour of such trouble-shooting flights.

Additional Training

When the backup plane arrives, the team hopes that each pilot will amass 2 to 2 1/2 hours of flight time, Scott added. Both planes will then be shipped to Crete, along with the Eagle.

One pilot at a time will attempt the Crete-to-Greece flight. Because each prospective pilot will require two to four days of special preparation to reach maximum readiness, their schedules will be staggered. Thus, one of the five pilots will be ready each day until weather permits the flight to be attempted.

If Daedalus is damaged in an unsuccessful attempt and cannot be repaired, the backup plane will be used.

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 King Minos' labyrinth on Crete. Daedalus escaped, but Icarus crashed into the ocean and died after he flew too near the sun, which melted the wax on his wings.

Cruising Speed

The craft is designed to fly about 15 feet above the ocean at a speed of 15 to 17 m.p.h. The trip is expected to take 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 hours, depending on the wind.

Tremml, Schmidt, and three other amateur cyclists are in training for the flight near Mojave, about 65 miles north of Los Angeles.

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