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.


U-Md. students make last minute checks as pilot, Judy Wexler, center, prepares to test a human-powered helicopter named "Gamera" on Wednesday. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

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 and thinned as test flight after test flight failed to result in take-off. (You can read the story I wrote for Thursday’s paper about those attempts.)

After a series of small successes Wednesday afternoon, like 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, like momentary jumps off the ground that might have been take-offs. As the team moved the Gamera back into place after for a final test, one of the arms snapped. The team tiredly 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 at about 5:30 p.m., the Gamera suddenly left the ground. Everyone cheered. An engineering college spokeswoman tweeted: “She did it!!!!!!! #Gamera.”

Officials still have to review video tape from the flight 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 succeed.

In 1989, students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo built a helicopter that hovered for 7.1 seconds. In 1994, students at Nihon University in Japan flew a helicopter for 19.46 seconds.

The U-Md. students constructed a helicopter that was similar to the one built in Japan: a lightweight X-shaped frame with a set of rotor blades at each point, and the pilot suspended in a cockpit in the middle.

But Gamera’s blades are about 30 percent longer than its predecessor, and the students lightened the frame by using carbon fiber, foam, Mylar and other materials. Instead of just a foot crank, the students added a hand crank, too. They also planned to hover close to the floor to benefit from the “extreme ground effect.”

Thursday evening, the engineering students dismantled the Gamera — and planned where to go to celebrate.

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