MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

Photograph: Flight of Daedalus
From Crete to Santorin, 1988

Photograph: Flight of DaedalusIn the 1980s MIT students and faculty members, with the support and cooperation of the Smithsonian Institution, NASA, the government of Greece, and several corporate sponsors, embarked on an exploration of human-powered flight. Their immediate goal was to surpass the record set in 1979 by the 22-mile flight of Gossamer Albatross over the English Channel. Less tangible but equally important reasons for the undertaking included providing hands-on interdisciplinary design experience for students, exploring the potentials and limits of human endurance, and stimulating interest in energy-efficient aircraft design. The culmination of these efforts was the flight on April 23, 1988, of Daedalus, a plane engineered at MIT and named in honor of the mythological inventor who escaped the tyranny of King Minos of Crete by taking to the sky on wings he fashioned using wax and feathers.

Diagram of DaedalusDaedalus weighed a mere 68.5 pounds when empty, despite its 29-foot fuselage and 112-foot wingspan. The secret of its extraordinary economy of weight was careful selection of materials and painstaking experimentation on strength of components under various degrees of stress. The skin of the aircraft was Mylar polyester plastic, fixed on a frame made primarily of polystyrene foam and graphite strips. Gearboxes, cranks, and landing gear were of aluminum. Leg-powered bicycle pedals engaged gears that linked to an 11-foot propeller in a ratio of 1:1.5, averaging 105 propeller revolutions per minute. Hand controls manipulated the rudder and elevator and adjusted the variable pitch propeller.

Notebook pageThirty-year-old Kanellos Kanellopoulos, 14-time bicycle champion of Greece, piloted (and powered) Daedalus as the craft took off from a Greek Air Force base near Knossos on April 23 and, accompanied by several small boats, flew at low altitude toward Santorin, an island north of Crete. Like other well-conditioned cyclists tested for the job, the pilot’s body had an unusual ability to process oxygen. En route, to bolster performance, he carried and consumed huge quantities of a drink specially developed to replenish depleted blood with fluids, salt, and glucose. Every component in Daedalus and everything carried on board was meticulously weighed and recorded in a notebook, including glue and grease. The project’s notebook entries are a curious mixture of precision and informality. A part weighing 21 grams, for example, is listed as a “bungee gizmo” under the general category of “miscellaneous wing stuff.” On the sample page seen here a project member has jokingly estimated that a smudge of grease on the paper weighs one hundredth of a milligram.

The aircraft’s graphite tail boom snapped when the pilot attempted to maneuver Daedalus into the wind before landing on the black sand beaches of Santorin. It crashed in the water a few feet from its destination, having nonetheless broken two world records for human-powered flight: the distance traveled was 72.44 miles, and the time aloft was 3 hours, 54 minutes, and 59 seconds. The records of Project Daedalus (AC 183), including charts, photographs, press releases, and correspondence, are available for research in the Institute Archives and Special Collections, Room 14N-118.

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Object of the Month: September 2003; August 2007

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