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Making Leonardo Proud: Students Fly World’s First Human-Power Helicopter

December 24, 1989

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (AP) _ Leonardo da Vinci long ago drew a flying machine powered by a man cranking levers that could take off vertically and hover above the Earth.

Five centuries and thousands of inventors later, da Vinci’s dream of a human-powered helicopter was realized this month by students at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

The Dec. 10 flight of the Da Vinci III, powered by an Olympic bicyclist, lasted just a few seconds and got the craft only a few inches off the ground.

Even so, it was the first ever flight by a human-powered helicopter and was hailed as a historic aviation achievement.

As a result, the Cal Poly students are spending Christmas break raising money and designing the Da Vinci IV.

″Until this point, nobody had ever broken the pull of the Earth. This is a great leap forward,″ said Mark Paris, spokesman for the American Helicopter Society in Alexandria, Va., an organization of engineers.

The 97-pound Da Vinci III, completely designed and built by undergraduate engineering students, officially flew for 6.8 seconds, rising eight inches off a gym floor on this campus halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The Dec. 10 flight, made before an official from the National Aeronautic Association and a cheering crowd, and two November practice flights left the inventors feeling like Orville and Wilbur Wright must have felt at Kitty Hawk.

″I was very surprised,″ said Neal Saiki, a 23-year-old senior and the guiding force of the project since 1987. ″The time it first took off, I wasn’t really expecting it, to tell you the truth. Then it was just all kinds of emotions going through me.″

The project has been in the works off and on since 1980, with much of the work done in a cluttered workshop. The whole project has cost about $100,000, money donated from aerospace companies and private contributors.

It has taken several versions of the helicopter, hundreds of hours behind a computer, scores of crashes and other mishaps, and lots of old-fashioned head scratching before the students came up with a workable design.

In the end, they found they didn’t so much have to refine helicopter technology as virtually reinvent the machine. What they have created is a craft that looks more like a spinning wing than a helicopter.

The Da Vinci III has a 100-foot rotor made of carbon graphite fiber (the stuff in expensive golf clubs), heavy-duty foam and a covering similar to the plastic that dry cleaners put around clothes.

The pilot sits in a contraption made of lightweight metal and balsa wood that hangs from the rotor on a swivel. Bicycle pedals, rather than the levers in da Vinci’s design, operate the Cal Poly helicopter.

Even at top speed, the rotor moves slowly, taking about six seconds for one rotation.

One key change from earlier helicopters was having the rotor support a dangling driver, instead of the driver’s compartment propping up the rotor. The change shaved 35 pounds off previous designs.

″Even though this seems like an obvious solution, it took years to come up with it,″ said Saiki.

The students hope to save more weight in the next design. Saiki said, ″We’d like to have someone other that Greg McNeil be able to drive this thing.″

McNeil is a Cal Poly student and member of the U.S. Olympic cycling team who had to pedal as if it were the final lap for the gold medal before the helicopter got off the ground.

Even a new and improved human helicopter, the students and their faculty adviser concede, will have few if any practical applications. But that doesn’t seem to bother them as they go back to the drawing board.

″Saying this isn’t practical is like telling the Wright Brothers, ’Sure, you flew, but you didn’t make it to Europe,‴ said the adviser, engineering professor Bill Patterson. ″Just proving the skeptics wrong was enough.″

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