Twenty years ago, on April 23, 1988, a team of MIT students,
faculty and alumni succeeded in a project that set a pair of aviation records
that still stand to this day. On that day, a lightweight airplane called Daedalus--completely
under human power--flew across the Mediterranean Sea from the Greek island
of Crete to just a few meters from the shore of the island of Santorini.
The plane was named for the character in Greek mythology who
escaped from King Minos of Crete by flying away with the help of wings made
of feathers attached to his arms with wax. The modern Daedalus used a set of
bicycle pedals and a chain transmission to power a large, slow-moving propeller.
Made largely of carbon-fiber composite and Mylar, it weighed just 69 pounds.
On its record flight, Daedalus traveled 115 kilometers (about
71.5 miles) across the sea before being buffeted by winds, breaking its tail
spar and crashing into the waves just 7 meters offshore from its destination.
The pilot (and powerplant), champion bicyclist Kanellos Kanellopoulos, swam
to shore unhurt, and the wreckage of the craft was sent to the Smithsonian,
where it remains in storage. An identical craft used in the initial tests is
on display at Boston's Museum of Science.
The flight set the all-time records for duration (3 hours
and 54 minutes) and distance of a human-powered flight, handily beating the
previous record of just under 36 kilometers set by Gossamer Albatross in a
crossing of the English Channel in 1979. And in the process, the testing and
development of the craft, including a series of tests at NASA's Dryden Flight
Research Center in California's Mojave Desert, produced information that helped
to bring about new technology for high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft, according