Pilots will have to pedal as though their lives depend upon it on the 22-mile crossing from England to France – a feat achieved only once before
Pilot Mike Truelove checks his cycle-powered plane, above, which he will ‘fly’ in the contest
Imagine yourself several meters up in the air, kept aloft in a machine made of plastic and carbon fiber weighing no more than 40kg, and all the time pedaling as if your life depended on it. That's precisely what a small band of daring men and women are preparing to do when they attempt to fly across the Channel powered simply by their own efforts. More than 40 years after the first and only crossing of that 22-mile stretch of water in a human-powered aircraft (HPA), teams of pilots and engineers are readying themselves to repeat the feat. Enthusiasts like to point out that such is the difficulty of what the teams will attempt to achieve – combining cutting edge engineering with the supreme athletic ability needed to pedal the aircraft into the air and keep it up there – that more people have flown into space than have flown a human-powered aircraft. The only successful attempt to fly an HPA from the south coast of England to France took place in 1979, when Californian fitness fanatic Bryan Allen completed the journey in 2 hours, 49 minutes in his 31kg Gossamer Albatross.
Californian Bryan Allen completed the man-powered Channel crossing in 1979“Crossing the English Channel in a human-powered aircraft has been done, once before – barely. It was one of the most amazing athletic achievements of our time,” said Alex Proudfoot, an HPA designer and one of the race organizers. “To think that several international teams are going to attempt the same feat, on the same day, in a race to see who is the fastest, seems almost a bit bonkers. It will be a huge technical and logistical challenge, but most of all a supreme test of athletic and piloting skill.” The attempt to cross the Channel by human propulsion will take place in June next year, with take-offs from Folkestone staggered to avoid the danger of mid-air collisions.
The problem with making aircraft so light is that high winds and thermal currents can cause the wings to shear off. Competition rules state that HPA should not fly more than 50m above the sea for longer than three minutes, though 5m is considered an ideal height.
Then there’s the energy the pilots will be required to produce during a crossing that would take more than two hours.
“Flying a human-powered aircraft takes between 300 and 400W of power,” said designer and engineer Fred To, one of the race organizers. “To keep this up over the several hours crossing will require levels of stamina close to what is needed in the Tour de France.”
The British have some way to go if they are to improve on their best efforts to date and land anywhere near France. The longest distance achieved by a British team in a human-powered aircraft was 2.6km, when Niall Paterson flew his Aerocycle at the annual Icarus Cup in 2019, while the current duration record for any British HPA is less than seven minutes.
“Managing to cross the channel will be a huge step forward and would be an incredible feat of athleticism and engineering,” said Mr. To.