It may just be the ultimate in green aircraft: a small pedal-powered plane that realizes the long-ago dreams of Leonardo da Vinci, achieving flight -- if only briefly -- with smart engineering and the power of the human body.
Just 16 years old when he designed and built it, Dutch teen Jesse van Kuijk is justifiably proud and defiantly possessive of his balsa wood and aluminum aircraft. When other people ask to try it out, he resolutely refuses. After spending years studying fluid mechanics and previous examples of human-powered aircraft, van Kuijk wanted the moment of glory all to himself. In fact, he turned down a plan by his sponsors to let a pro cyclist take it on its maiden voyage into the skies.
The plane, with its 85-foot wings lined with rip-resistant foil, is nearly 23 feet long, 13 feet tall and weighs about 123.5 pounds. It’s made to collapse when not in use, and takes about three hours to set up. The aircraft is accelerated using a long bicycle chain attached at a 90 degree angle to a red propeller.
On Aug. 9, at the small Kempen airport near his home of Budel, Holland, a small crowd gathered to watch as van Kuijk -- now a student in aerospace engineering at a technical university in Delft -- attempted to get his plane off the ground for the first time. Given a green light by airport officials, van Kuijk took a seat aboard his aircraft and began pedaling as two men held the wings horizontal in case it got windy.
The propeller began to turn, the aircraft moved forward, and "the Earth under my feet slipped away," as van Kuijk told reporters afterwards. He got about five feet off the ground for about 50 feet before a mechanical defect caused him to touch back down onto the runway. The bicycle chain had lifted off the cog.
He might not have been in the air for long, but van Kuijk is happy as can be. His design works. He flew. Now, all it takes is a few adjustments before the teenaged pilot can give it another try.
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