Articles tagged with: Dr Wilkie

"Cycling in the air": Alex Moulton and Human-Powered Flight

on Monday, 27 September 2021. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

The 1950s were wonderful years for science and engineering, where anything was possible. Sputnik 1 was launched into space, the first passenger jets entered service, and people apparently flew around on their own personal helicopters:

Man stood on platform hovering a few feet above the ground, with blades rotating beneath him.

The heli-vector stood on the ground with two sets of rotator blades resting on four padded feet..
The “Heli-Vector”, a type of personal helicopter with two sets of rotors mounted underneath the platform. ©The Aeroplane, 8 April 1955.

Alex Moulton was also very busy in these years. He might be best known for his work on the Mini (the suspension he designed for the Mini owed its roots to his work on ‘Flexitor’ suspension for the Austin Gipsy in the 1950s), but he was a prolific inventor who was interested in almost all areas of engineering design, from steam-powered cars to wheelchair suspension.

Moulton enjoyed novel or interesting engineering challenges, and the “Heli-Vector” personal helicopter above certainly caught his eye as he made a cutting of the article and filed it away for future reference. But Alex Moulton was as much a sportsman who enjoyed physical challenges as he was an engineer, and so when he read an article in a 1955 edition of The Aeroplane which talked of a pre-war German experiment with human-powered flight, the seeds of an idea took root.

Man in recumbent bicycle incorporated into a plane cockpit with wing and propeller above.
Cockpit of early prototype human-powered aircraft. ©B. S. Shenstone, ‘The problem of the very low-weight, highly-efficient aeroplane’, reprinted from the Canadian Aeronautical Journal, 2:3 (1956)

Moulton’s personal papers contain a small file of material on human-powered flight. The material mainly consists of correspondence with scientists and engineers working in the field, and Moulton’s letters show his passionate enthusiasm for the concept. In fact, he joined the Low Speed Aerodynamics Research Association in 1956, and wrote to its Director of Research to say “I would like to support, in any way possible, activity in the direction of studying and achieving Man Power Flight”. The papers also include numerous studies and reports which aimed to prove that, theoretically at least, human-powered flight was possible.

A 1955 article in The Aeroplane set out the calculations: “a pre-war German design, the Haessler-Villinger, had an empty weight of 77lb and required only 0.82 bhp to fly at 30mph” whereas a new, more lightweight and aerodynamic, design could be flown at 30mph using only 0.68 horsepower. It was theorized that two people could produce just under 1 horsepower if power was generated by the pilot using their legs only (presumably their arms were being used to fly the plane!) and the co-pilot using both their legs and their arms. If you think that generating power using your legs sounds suspiciously like a bicycle, then you’d be right:

Diagrams and plans of plane in profile and from above powered by tandem bicycle mechanism.
Proposed design of a human-powered aircraft. © London Illustrated News 1955

Early ideas for human-powered aircraft seem to have been based around creating what was effectively a tandem bike inside the cockpit, with the addition of a linked handcycle arrangement for the (presumably very fit) co-pilot. Perhaps it was the centrality of the bicycle that attracted Moulton’s interest. He began corresponding with several people involved in the Royal Aircraft Establishment’s Man Powered Aircraft Committee (MAPAC), principally a member of MAPAC called David Rendel. MAPAC considered two main designs for the aircraft: a fixed wing design, and an ornithopter (an aircraft with flapping wings, similar to those of a bird). Both were to be pedal-powered.

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