Those Incredible Flying Machines : The Daedalus Aircraft Is a Technical Feat, but the Real Marvels Are the Athletes Who Fly It

Times Staff Writer

It looked like a sequel to "Revenge of the Nerds." "Faster! Pick it up!" the gawky MIT aeronautical engineering student barked at the panting athlete he had strapped into a computerized exercise contraption. While one grimaced, the other smiled slightly and punched buttons on a calculator.

What looked like like torture, though, was really teamwork. The nerds and the jocks have united in this high desert town, and if all goes well, they'll achieve something neither could do alone.

So far, their goal has only been accomplished in myth--by a Greek architect and sculptor named Daedalus who constructed wings of wax and feathers and escaped the wrath of King Minos by flying from the island of Crete to Sicily.

The modern team, which calls itself the Daedalus project, has constructed its wings--as well as its fuselage, tail section, and other plane parts--from more high tech materials.

With one obvious exception.

According to the rules the team set for itself, the engine must be of the same design that supposedly powered the original Daedalus to freedom: A heart, lungs, muscles and brain . . . i.e., a human.

Designed After the Original

The Daedalus project is largely the work of MIT, but Yale University, NASA, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society are also participating in the research, and United Technologies and the Shaklee health food corporations are lending financial and technical support.

"Our basic purpose is two-fold, education and research," said project manager John Langford. As a small-scale, hands-on engineering project, Daedalus will provide the same sort of research and development that goes into a major aeronautic project, "but the scale is much more workable. . . . It's a lot easier to understand," Langford said.

Part of the educational goal in choosing such a romantic project is to close the perceived gap between the "two cultures" of technology and the rest of society, Langford said. The original Daedalus was a Renaissance man before his time, the da Vinci of his era, Langford said. And the modern Daedalus crew hopes to demonstrate that "art and engineering all stem from the basic human drive to create something."

The plan in coming to Lancaster was to provide the project's five-member team of athletes with lots of flight time, first on the Eagle, and then on the lighter, more fragile Daedalus. If all goes well in Lancaster, one of three pilots culled from the five will attempt to pedal 74 miles from Crete to the Greek island of San Torini this spring, more than doubling the existing record for human-powered flight.

Unfortunately, the desert was hardly dry. Storms soaked the lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base on which test flights occur, and as of last week the team was far behind schedule.

The athletes, most of whom are top competitive cyclists, kept training, pushing their bicycling regimen up to 400 miles a week in the nearby mountains. The engineers and students, most of whom are from MIT, kept mulling and calculating, modifying the plane and their plans. And they continued tuning up the plane's five human engines.

From Athletes to Pilots

From the beginning, the team has been running batteries of tests on the athletes, checking such factors as "fuel delivery, heat removal, oxygen consumption," said Steven Bussolari), the MIT professor in charge of turning the athletes into pilots and coordinating the human factors aspects of the program.

"From a physiological standpoint, there's little understanding of . . . what happens to human physiology in long endurance events," Bussolari said. The Daedalus research will lend understanding to the problems faced by other types of pilots, by athletes and it will be interesting as basic science.

"The beauty of the project is that it's bringing so many (research projects) together," Bussolari added. ". . . You could solve a lot of these same problems on simulators. But it would be harder to get people motivated," he said. "It has something to do with the human need to push frontiers."

"Motivation is a tremendous factor," agreed Glenn Tremml, who flew the Light Eagle to a world-record-setting 36.6 mile flight last January. But Tremml, who is the only athlete with previous human-powered flight experience, added: "Of the five of us here, I'm the most skeptical (of motivation's power). I see tremendous physical limits to our possibilities.

"Maybe that's why I'm not as great an athlete as they are," added Tremml, who is taking a year from medical school to work on the project. "They think that as long as they believe strongly enough, they can do it. I think as long as they have enough water and calories. . . "

Motivation is hardly in short supply around the athletes' condominium, where the "all work and no play" adage is completely ignored. These guys bear no resemblance to the wild and crazy Edwards test pilots documented in Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff." Decorated in timeless college-condo motif, the place blends the aromas of a locker room and health food store. Five beat-up 10-speeds and a mountain bike lean against walls. Piles of riding shorts and jerseys and old copies of Outside and Triathlete magazine litter the rental furniture.

But the room's centerpiece is an ergometer, a stationary bike modified to replicate the reclined pedaling position of the Daedalus. Hooked up to a sophisticated computer with a video flight simulator that allows the pilots to practice their piloting skills as well as their pumping skills, the ergometer was in constant use on an evening earlier this week.

"Social life? Go out at night? That's a novel idea," said pilot Greg Zack, 26, of Lexington, Ky.

"Wake up calls for flights come at 4:45 a.m.," he said, and the pilots don't know whether they'll get a call for "flight operations" until that morning.

If they do, "flight ops leave you whopped for the day," Zack said.

Doing laundry is about exciting as life gets around the condo, the pilots said. Carousing or drinking alcoholic beverages is out of the question. ("It makes me feel funny," Zack said).

The athletes buy and cook their own high-carbohydrate, low-fat meals, wolfing down up to 7,000 calories of brown rice, steamed vegetables, fruit, whole grain bread and similar gourmet fare in a day.

And the engineers are analyzing the athletes to figure out the best way to keep them rehydrated during the flight, which is expected to drain at least a liter of fluid from their bodies during the four- to six-hour flight.

All of which makes him feel a bit like a science fair project, Zack said.

"You should have seen him at Yale," said Louis Toth, a 19-year-old engineering student at MIT, refering to the first battery of tests on candidates for the project conducted at Yale University last year. "I had a catheter in my arm with a little water faucet on it that turns on and off," Zack said. "They could take out as much blood as they wanted whenever they wanted to."

"Sometimes I want to say I'm not a guinea pig, I'm a human being and this is my body," said Erik Schmidt, 25, looking downright defiant as he smeared high-fat butter on an English muffin. "But I've been through this all along as an athlete." And, he added, "I love the training. I like the pain."

And the challenge of making the flight makes it all worthwhile, they said.

"It's nice, you keep pedaling and flying and enjoying this strange thing," said Kanellos Kanellopolus, 31, the only Greek on the team, talking around a mouthful of cinnamon raisin bread on which he'd just spread the last of a 5-pound can of honey he'd polished off in just 10 days.

Early the next morning, team members pushed open the huge doors of the hangar where the space shuttle usually beds down, and began preparing the Daedalus for a test flight, making adjustments and warming its wings with heat guns to make them taut.

Some of the plane's contraptions, like the 1:1.5 gear box that transfers the pilots' leg power to the 11-foot, 3-inch propellers, were specially designed just for this plane. Others were adapted. The altimeter, for instance, is an electronic focusing device pirated from an automatic camera. Mounted on the floor of the plane, it bounces sonar signals from the ground to determine the plane's height.

The 112-foot wings are constructed of pink, polystyrene foam which was sculpted as thin as possible with a computer-assisted hot wire device, then covered with clear Mylar, explained Lois McCallin, who holds three human-powered flight records, and is assisting with the current project.The fuselage is a Mylar and Kevlar covering on a framework of graphite tubing with ribs made of polystyrene foam and thin strips of wood.

Almost everyone on the project spent a good part of their childhoods gluing pieces of balsa wood into model airplanes, said engineer Mark Drela. "It has the same charm, the same appeal--just on a larger scale."

With Tremml pumping the pedals, the 70.2-pound Daedalus rattled along the dry lake bed, looking like some sort of high-tech pink dragonfly against the chalky blue sky. Led by a pickup truck filled with crew members and followed by an MIT van containing a computer, printer and a generator to run the gadgetry, the Daedalus left the ground for the first time in weeks, its previously downcast wing tips rising up hopefully as pressure built under its airfoil. Then, no more than two minutes after takeoff, Tremml announced into his headphones: "Something snapped."

"He's landing!" a crew member shouted, and two runners jumped from the rear of the pickup, sprinted forward, caught the frail plane's wing tips before they could grate across the pebble-impregnated sand.

Within minutes the crew had kited Daedalus back into the hangar. While some crew members wheeled the Light Eagle onto the lake bed for a test flight, others tried to figure out what went wrong on the Daedalus.

Noticing the activity, Glen Pingry, the flight engineer on the Boeing 747 that NASA uses to piggyback the space shuttle to Florida, hustled over. Poking his head under the wing he gave a little chuckle. He ran his finger gently along the trailing edge of the air foil, looking up at the thin Kevlar x-braces visible inside the clear skin of the wings.

"How many man hours it take to put this guy together? Bunches I bet," he said, smiling at Mark Drela, who was using an Allen wrench to take apart the Daedalus gear box.

"Twenty thousand," Drela replied. (Others put the figure at 10- 15,000 hours.)

"I fly one that weighs 700,000 pounds, so weight isn't much of a consideration," Pingry said.

"This is a beautiful airplane, but I still love my big shaky. I can get a cup of coffee on that guy," he said, nodding in the direction of the huge, four-engine plane.

Dwarfed by the 747's wings, the Light Eagle was visible in the distance, floating 10 feet off the ground.

Times staff writer Gary Libman contributed to this story.

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