Pedal Power : Cal Poly Uses Bicyclist to Get Human-Driven Helicopter Off the Ground


The Army's state-of-the-art Apache helicopter uses two 1,500-horsepower engines to get off the ground, but Greg McNeil only has his legs and feet.

McNeil, an aeronautical engineering student and world-class cyclist from Ojai, has pedaled his way to the National and World Cycling Championships, but he has never made his way into the record books as he hopes to this weekend when he attempts to get the first "human-powered" helicopter airborne.

McNeil, 21, will make his bid in a craft designed by fellow aeronautical engineering students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Attending will be experts appointed by the National Aeronautical Assn., the organization charged with keeping U. S. flight records.

The craft is not expected to hover very high or very long, but if it lifts off at least three inches, the record-keepers will deem it the first time a human-powered helicopter has gone aloft, said Malvern Gross, president of the National Aeronautical Assn.

McNeil already has pedaled the helicopter, known as the Da Vinci III, into the air twice--on Nov. 12 and Nov. 27--but needs to re-enact those flights for the record books. He said this week he was confident the feat could be repeated.

The helicopter, named after the great Italian artist who made visionary sketches of human-powered flying machines, has been an eight-year project of the campus chapter of the American Helicopter Society, said Neal Saike, a senior and project manager.

Students at Cal Poly and engineering schools across the country were inspired by a 1981 challenge from the society. The group offered $25,000 to the team that could create a human-powered chopper capable of hovering three meters--about 10 feet--off the ground for one minute. Students in Arizona, Florida, England and Japan have tried and failed.

The Da Vinci III won't fly high enough or long enough to bring home the brass ring, even if it succeeds at its fleeting hover. Its greatest flight so far was a four-second, four-inch leap off the ground.

Over the years, the project has been an exercise in frustration. The first of the group's four would-be choppers simply stayed put, despite the exertions of a bicyclist-pilot. The second and third--ungainly behemoths with wingspans of 140 feet--flipped and crashed.

Saike said the fourth one, which is to attempt liftoff in Cal Poly's gymnasium, is the charm.

The 97-pound Da Vinci III is made of foam, graphite, carbon fiber and balsa wood. Its rotor blade, covered with a transparent plastic, filmlike skin, spans 100 feet. The pilot lies in a seat swinging inside a triangular cage. The pedals pull polyethylene thread that has been fed through the rotor blade and is attached to propellers at the end of the blade tips.

McNeil's pedaling spins the propellers, which in turn pull the larger rotor around in a counter-clockwise motion. The rotor itself spins slowly at a rate of only about eight revolutions per minute, but McNeil has to pedal furiously--at 85 r.p.m. for 50 seconds--to "blast off."

McNeil joined the Da Vinci project as pilot in November, just before the first test flight. He said he balances school and work by attending Cal Poly for one quarter a year and competing in nationwide bicycle races from January to September. Since he is in his off-training season, McNeil said, propelling the Da Vinci III completely exhausts him.

"I'm flying for a few seconds, and then I'm completely done. I'm in my worst possible shape right now because I'm not in training," McNeil said.

Training for him means riding 400 to 500 miles a week, usually at 17 m.p.h. In addition, he said, he lifts weights, plays soccer and runs to keep in top shape. While in school, McNeil said, he puts in a "maintenance" 350 miles a week on bicycles.

McNeil started cycling six years ago while running track and cross-country, and playing water polo at Nordhoff High School in Ojai. By the time he was in his senior year at Nordhoff, he was solely devoted to cycling.

Now he competes in pro-amateur racing across the country and in Europe. In July, he placed third at the National Cycling Championships in Park City, Utah, and in August he rode for the U. S. Cycling Team in the World Championships in France. Although McNeil didn't finish the 114-mile race, he said, he is planning to do well next year in the championships in Japan.

McNeil calls himself a professional rider, since he races for a living. But he said he maintains an amateur status and plans to compete in the 1992 Olympics. However, he said, amateur cycling has been lucrative for him, bringing in about $20,000 a year, with all expenses paid. He said he is just ending his contract with sponsor Celestial Seasonings, a tea company, and will be riding for Montgomery Securities and Subaru.

McNeil said his professional training is what sets him apart from other pilots on the Da Vinci project.

"What I do is different than what the guys at school do. I do this for a living--it's a job," he said.

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