Engineer John Langford and the Daedalus Project Fly in the Slipstream of a Myth

UPDATED 02/29/1988 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/29/1988 at 01:00 AM EST

...with melting wax and loosened strings
Sunk hapless Icarus on unfaithful wings;
Headlong he rushed through the affrighted air,
With limbs distorted and disheveled hair...

Erasmus Darwin, quoted in Bulfinch's Mythology

According to Greek myth, Icarus was the first to discover the perils of human-powered flight. Two weeks ago, at California's Edwards Air Force Base, pilot Erik Schmidt learned that lesson once again when his pedal-powered aircraft hit a sudden updraft, banked 20 degrees and corkscrewed slowly, gracefully and irrevocably into the desert. Schmidt, who had been cruising at an altitude of only 15 feet, emerged unhurt. His state-of-the-art, plastic-and-graphite aircraft—29 feet long, 112 feet from wingtip to wingtip and weighing only 70 pounds—was towed back to the shop with a broken wing.

For John Langford, 30, an aeronautical engineer and program manager of the Daedalus Project, the accident was a temporary but not insurmountable setback. Next month Langford and a crew of 30 will transport a backup aircraft to the Mediterranean in hopes of re-creating the mythical journey of Daedalus, the Greek hero who fabricated wings for himself and his son, Icarus, to escape captivity on the island of Crete. If the planned 74-mile flight from Crete to the Greek island of Santorini is successful, it will double existing records for human-powered flight. But Langford is also mindful of the downside of the Daedalus myth. Even as Daedalus soared like a bird, Icarus plunged to his death because he flew too close to the sun and melted the wax that held his feathered wings together. "The ancients saw flight as something within man's grasp if he used his mind and his technology to overcome his physical limits," Langford says. "But it is still full of pitfalls." Langford and the team of scientists and students who created the Daedalus aircraft believe they've incorporated the best design and materials available. "The wings of this aircraft could not have been designed without computers," says Langford. But the ultimate challenge is one of human stamina. For four months, five world-class cyclists have been training at Edwards, cycling 500 miles a week between workouts in a prototype plane. To fly from Crete to Santorini, the pilot must pedal nonstop at up to 80 rpm for 4½ to 6 hours. "If they rest, the plane goes down—it's that simple," says Ethan Nadel, a Yale physiologist working on the project. "It's like running two marathons back to back."

Luck and Mother Nature will decide which pilot is chosen to make the actual flight. The pilots are on staggered three-day training cycles, and the one in peak condition on the day weather conditions are optimal will get the nod. The team hopes to launch the flight between March 31 and May 15, before the weather gets too hot. "The Icarus part of the story is true," says Mark Drela, 28, the chief aerodynamic engineer. "Heat could kill us. It wouldn't melt the wings, but it could give the pilot cramps or sap his energy."

The Daedalus Project evolved out of coffee klatch discussions in 1978 between Langford and four other aeronautical engineering students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Avid model airplane builders, Langford and his cohort designed their first human-powered plane in 1979. "It was a great way to get hands-on experience," says Langford. "These planes are complex enough to involve almost every element of engineering that goes into something like a Boeing jetliner."

Looking for even greater challenges, Langford and his buddies eventually hatched the idea for Daedalus. "People have dreamed of doing this for years," he says, "but without modern technology it just wouldn't have been possible." Still, Langford found that some friends and colleagues dismissed the entire endeavor as crazy. "Many people look at it and say, 'When are you going to get a real job?' " he admits. But last year he achieved a measure of vindication when the Light Eagle, a Daedalus prototype, stayed aloft over the Mojave Desert for 37.2 miles, a distance record. "That gave me a sense of fulfillment," Langford says. "You end up throwing so much of your soul into these things, you don't want to toss it into a dream that can never be realized."

About $1 million in corporate and institutional grant money has gone into the Daedalus Project, so more than just pride is riding on the flight. "We're sweating blood," Langford says. Since the plane is unlikely to rise much above an altitude of 15 feet and will be followed by boats, there is little danger of serious injury to the pilot. But even if the flight is a washout, Langford insists it should by no means be considered a failure. "What is important is not the destination but the journey," he says. "Daedalus has no obvious practical purposes, but one of its real beauties is that it has no destructive purposes either, just educational. It's an art object."

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