At the University of Maryland, a 21st-century twist on the Wright Brothers

After days of adjusting, rebuilding, testing and super-gluing, a human-powered helicopter at the University of Maryland left the ground for about four seconds late Thursday afternoon.

It was the third known time a human-powered craft has left the ground, and the first time a woman has been in the pilot’s seat.

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“It was beautiful,” said Brandon Bush, 29, a U-Md. doctoral student and a project manager. “It jumped up, and it stayed there.”

For years, U-Md. engineering students and faculty members have been working on the light-weight helicopter, which they named Gamera after a monstrous flying turtle that starred in Japanese films.

Take-off was first scheduled for Wednesday morning, so a crowd of journalists and supporters gathered in a campus gym. That crowd thinned as test flight after test flight failed to result in take-off.

After a series of small successes later Wednesday, such as powering the rotors to more than 16 rotations per minute, the students worked through the night and returned Thursday morning.

There were small successes throughout the day. As the team moved the Gamera back into place after for a final test, one of the arms snapped. The team super-glued it back together. As the glue dried, the gym emptied.

“Even our own team members had started to leave,” Bush said.

During their final attempt, the Gamera suddenly left the ground. Everyone cheered. An engineering college spokeswoman tweeted: “She did it!!!!!!! #Gamera.”

Officials will review the videotape to see exactly how long Gamera was in the air, but a representative of the National Aeronautic Association estimates it was about four seconds.

It wasn’t enough to win the elusive Sikorsky Award, a $250,000 prize that will be given to the first engineers who can build a human-powered helicopter that can reach an altitude of at least three meters and hover for at least 60 seconds. The challenge was issued in 1980, but so far no one has succeeded.

 
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