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Human-Powered Plane Team Aims to Set World Records

March 8, 1996

SEATTLE (AP) _ A human-powered plane dubbed the Raven plans on soaring into record books with a wingspan longer than a Boeing 737 and an auto-pilot computer about the size of a biscuit.

The 75-pound pedal plane is the brainchild of inventor Paul Illian and his associate, Heather Costantino, both engineers at Boeing.

``It’s elegance and simplicity, a minimalist approach to engineering,″ Illian said.

The $300,000 project has united 250 volunteers, 11 schools and dozens of private businesses in a quest to break world records for human-powered flight. Testing begins in August and the potentially record-setting flight, from Boundary Bay, British Columbia, to Seattle, is expected sometime next year.

But this baby won’t fly alone: It needs a highly conditioned athlete to pedal nonstop for five hours for what would be a 100-mile flight over Puget Sound. Stop for 30 seconds and the plane would drop 18 1/2 feet into the water.

The records for distance and duration were set in 1988 by cyclist Kanellos Kanellopoulos of Greece. He pedaled the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-designed Daedalus 71 1/2 miles from Crete to Santorini Island in 3 hours, 54 minutes and 59 seconds.

Since a Greek named Archytas built a wooden pigeon that flew through the air 2,300 years ago, people have been trying new ways to fly.

Italian inventor Leonardo da Vinci built an ornithopter with wings that flapped. British inventor George Cayley made a glider and founded the science of aerodynamics.

In 1903, Ohio bicycle-makers Wilbur and Orville Wright built their first airplane, the Flyer. It was a biplane with a 12 horsepower gasoline engine and cotton fabric-covered wings spanning 40 feet, 4 inches.

``This technology has gone full circle. The Wright Brothers used fibers and glue, and now these people are using carbon fibers and polymer glue,″ said Ralph Bufano, director of the Museum of Flight in Seattle, which is overseeing the project.

The specs for the Raven, which is still being built, are remarkable.

Along with a 115-foot wingspan and tiny auto-pilot computer, the plane has a 9 1/2-foot-long propeller that weighs only 1 1/2 pounds. The hollow wings will be covered in a special carbon skin that weighs just 22 ounces a square yard. Its frame is made from a lightweight graphite.

``Weight is everything,″ Costantino said.

The Raven’s sensors, used to help guide the plane, come from guided missile systems, she said.

The athlete-pilot, who can be no more than 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds, will lie back in a mesh seat and pedal the equivalent of biking on flat land at 22 mph for the entire flight.

The project also has a special flight simulator to test the Raven. Pilots can sit in a duplicate cockpit and watch a computer screen as they pedal.

``That way we don’t have to crash the plane to learn how to fly it,″ Costantino said.

Seattle University is developing a drinking water system for the pilot. Western Washington University students are working on the fuselage, and North Seattle Community College and Lake Washington Technical College have propeller projects.

But the most important thing is to have fun learning, Costantino said.

``We don’t want to end up with a product to market. It has to be purely for fun, knowledge for the sake of knowledge,″ she said.

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