10 Uplifting Inventions for Personal Flight

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George Cayley - Early 1800s
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Although attempts at human flight go back centuries, George Cayley is recognized as the first person to analyze what technical necessities were required for flight. After investigating different models, Cayley's designs for fixed-wing devices led to the insight that flight required list lift, propulsion and control. Through the early nineteenth century, Cayley worked on various gliders, adding concave wings at slight angles and rudders. He recognized that his glider needed an engine, but was unsuccessful at building one. Without that component, his device only flew for a few hundred yards before crashing. Here, Sir Richard Branson pilots a replica of Cayley's flyer in 2003.

Helene Alberti - 1931
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Former opera singer and burlesque dance, Madame Helene Alberti was another early pioneer of the wingsuit. She believed so much in the "greek cosmic law of motion" that she intended to open a flight school once she demonstrated her suit's success. Cosmic motion was supposedly based on principles conceived by Dr. Arthur A. Noyes. Alberti claimed human nerves acted like engines, with willpower as their ignition key. By rocking back and forth with wings on, cosmic motion would grant you flight. When Alberti first tested this theory just outside of Boston in 1929, the winds blew her around like a broken toy. She turned to a man in Concord, New Hampshire to help perfect her suit design and had a pupil try again... only to nose dive straight into the ground. There's actually filmed evidence.

Clem Sohn - 1935
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A group of daredevils, including Clem Sohn (above) experimented in the 1930s with wingsuits made of combinations of canvas, whalebone and silk. Sohn would take a plane up to 10,000 feet and then jump out, using the wings under his arms and between his legs to glide for around 75 seconds. Usually he landed with a parachute, but in 1937 it didn't open and Sohn plummeted to his death. Unfortunately, this was quite common and around 70 "birdmen" died between 1930 and 1960.

Francis & Gertrude Rogallo -1948
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Even though Francis Rogallo was employed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, they had no interest in his ideas for "flexible wing" vehicles. Bringing his idea home, Rogallo and his wife Gertrude worked together to build a prototype. They used table fans and cardboard to build wind tunnels. Then Gertrude sewed a flowered kitchen curtain together into a triangle-shaped kite. Initially the Rogallos licensed their design to a kite maker, but the design was eventually appropriated for hang gliding and paragliding. In fact, NASA eventually approached Rogallo about using the invention to land space capsules back to earth. They paid him $35,000 for the concept but eventually stuck with a simple parachute in the heat of the space race.

The Rocket Belt - 1961
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Funded by the American military, Harold Graham first flew the rocket belt that was invented by Wendell Moore in 1961. He flew 108 feet (33 meters) in 13 seconds using a pressurized release of hydrogen peroxide. Because of the limited amount of fuel a person can carry, rocket belts only allow for less than a minute of flight and are difficult to control. The design did go on to be modified by NASA for the Manned Maneuvering Unit astronauts use to move independently outside of a space shuttle.

Competitive Personal Flyers

When human-powered aircraft became more prevalent in the 1980s, several competitions started across the world, hoping to turn aviation into an extreme sport. By using affordable lightweight materials to produce their designs, amateur aviators build and fly their devices against one another. Pictured here is Anthony Rewcastle in 2005, participating in the "birdman competition" at the Queenstown Festival in Queenstown, New Zealand. Another competitive human-powered aircraft event is the Icarus Cup in England, where pilots compete at sprinting, duration, slalom, take-offs and landings. The very first prize for this tournament went to the Paul MacCready's Gossamer Condor in 1977. For more on this particular apparatus, see our next entry.

Gossamer Condor/Albatross
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Paul MacCready's Gossamer Condor successfully flew a figure-8 course over 1.25 miles (2.01 kilometers) in 1977 and won a British prize for human-powered flight set up in 1959. Its successor, the Gossamer Albatross was the first human-powered aircraft to cross the English Channel. At some points it only flew six inches over the waves, at a mere 14 miles per hour. Later, MacCready worked together with NASA to test a pilotless model of the Gossamer Albatross 70,000 to 85,000 feet above the earth. NASA (and possibly the military) were attracted to MacCready's design because it offered more speed and controllability than a balloon and could spend longer over a target than planes.

Yves Rossey
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Another human-powered aircraft to cross the English Channel was designed by professional pilot Yves Rossy. What makes Rossey's device different is the four jet engines strapped to his back. Each turbine is a modified version of the kind used in military drones. Besides these, every part of Rossy's "wing" is custom built: a fiberglass shell, carbonfiber skeleton, electronic control unit and tanks containing 3.5 gallons of jet fuel. Rossy controls the wing with his own body movements, steering by turning his head. It wasn't until 2007 that Rossy was sponsored by a Swiss watch company and no longer needed to spend his own money on the wing. He hopes there will be a time when he can produce a simpler model that can be mass-produced and flown by others with parachuting experience.

Base Jumping
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With the advent of wing suits made of baffled fabric, base jumping has become the extreme sport that some "birdmen" were looking for. Leaping off of man-made towers or natural cliffs, the base jumpers either pop a parachute or glide through the air at high-speed, using their inflatable fabric wings. However, many base jumpers die from accidents each year, including the first wingsuit jumper Patrick de Gayardon in 1998.

The Puffin
Courtesy of NASA.

As we've seen through this countdown, NASA has invested frequently in the research of personal air vehicles over the years. In 2010 they revealed "The Puffin" concept designed by their aerospace engineer Mark Moore. The internet went wild in anticipation. Although it still hasn't been actualized, the Puffin would utilize sensitive motors and control systems so the craft would "sense" the intention of its pilot, much like a horse senses the intentions of its riders. The Puffin would weigh 300-pounds and be 12 feet long (3.7 meters) with a 14.5 foot wingspan (4.4 meters). It's named after the puffin because it stands vertically for take off. Once in a hovering position, it leans forward and flies horizontally.