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Engineering Students Building Human Powered Aircraft

Students in the College of Engineering have been chipping away at a project that seems like science fiction for the past four years — a human-powered aircraft. Ph.D. candidate John Byrd completely operates the revolutionary aircraft that will be soon eligible to win a prize of a quarter of a million dollars.

Students in AERSP 204H and 404H and the student-run club Sailplane created the epic enterprise and it’s all happening on the third floor of Engineering Unit C. Students work on the airplane for three to four hours a week in preparation for an international competition in London for the Kremer prize, hosted by the Royal Aeronautics Society.

Maggie Wrobel

The competition involves flying the aircraft in a triangle-shaped route and back a second time in the other direction to complete the course. The course spans 500 meters on each side of an equilateral triangle and the plane must clear a 10-meter high wall in the beginning.

The students’ goal is to fly the airplane and test its human-powered capabilities by the spring. The plane itself has a 74-foot wingspan and weighs a total of 200 pounds (60 pounds of lightweight carbon fiber foam and a 140-pound pilot). It’s able to fly 20 to 30 feet above ground since lower levels are more efficient to maintain the target speed. The aircraft must reach a high enough zone in order to turn, which involves dropping a wing so the pilot can avoid hitting the ground.

Photo by: Maggie Wrobel

The aircraft will be tested near an airport in Midstate on a straight runway. It is transported in pieces, since part of the competition’s requirements is being able to assemble the plane in a certain time limit. The students said this has been one of the most difficult aspects of the project. The team began the design process on a computer, using a 3-D modeling program and split into the wing, tail, propulsion, and data analysis sections for efficiency.

Photo: Kyle Snowberger

Sophomore aerospace engineering major Rachel Schellberg started working on the project the fall of her freshman year and still dedicates four nights a week to the endeavor.

“Human powered flight didn’t happen before the 80s, and when you think about what it takes to be able to get a person to fly, it’s not a trivial thing,” Schellberg said. “This is a pretty modern innovation. Students don’t usually get the chance to do stuff like this and I really appreciate the opportunity.”

She mentioned the process involves a lot of trial and error and a project this ambitious can take some time. “I was designing a pod with my group that will eventually encapsulate the pilot made out of fiberglass and wire which we redesigned five times since we made some mistakes,” Schellberg said. “This project has a lot to do with how to manage a team and working well with other people.”

Photo by: Maggie Wrobel

Senior aerospace engineering and German major Kyle Snowberger has been on board with the project since his sophomore year. His job as one of the group leaders involves motivating the group and keeping everyone on the same page with the plan of action. “We have to build a whole airplane this semester which has never been done before.” Snowberger mentions that flight testing is his favorite part of the whole experience since that is when the project truly comes to life.

“We have a lot of momentum with the project right now,” Schellberg said. “We have a lot of new freshmen and sophomores who are ready to go and excited to be working on it, and it’s really cool to see something that you’ve been working on for so long come to completion.”

About the Author

Claire Going

Claire is a freshman broadcast journalism major and writer for Onward State. She enjoys reading, running, and a good cup of tea. She's from Emmaus, Pennsylvania and is a dual citizen. (Go Ireland!) You can contact her via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @claire_going.


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