The field of human-powered flight achieved an unlikely milestone yesterday when, for the first time, two independent teams went head-to-head in an attempt to win the Sikorsky Prize. Unclaimed after 22 years, the Prize—a human-powered hover of 60 seconds and an altitude of three meters altitude while remaining within a 10-meter square box—has long been believed by many aeronautists to be flatly impossible to attain. But recent achievements have convinced most observers that not only will the prize fall, but it will fall soon.
Before this year, attempts were few and far between, with only three machines ever managing to leave the ground. In 1989, a craft built by students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo stayed airborne for 7.1 seconds. Five years later, Yuri I, built by students at Nihon University in Japan, flew for 19.5 seconds. After a dormant long period, the prize was reinvigorated in 2009 when the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation bumped the prize amount up from $25,000 to its present quarter million. Last year, a team from the University of Maryland’s A.J. Clark School of Engineering achieved 11.4 seconds with a machine dubbed Gamera.
Given all those anemic results, it’s no wonder skepticism remained rife. But this summer the Gamera team fielded a larger, lighter-weight version of its earlier machine, this one called Gamera II, that quickly racked up a string of stunning achievements. This past June, the team upped their best time to an astounding 50 seconds, then in early August improved that to 70 seconds. The duration requirement was in their grasp, but could they pull off the altitude? A three-day visit by an official from the National Aeronautic Association, who could certify a bid for the Sikorsky Prize, was scheduled for Tuesday, August 28 to Thursday, August 30.
Meanwhile, 300 miles to the north, a secretive insurgent campaign was underway…