Magnificent men and their flying machine to relive Greek myth

Daedalus, a 70-pound airplane, looks something like a big see-through toy with an unexpected 112-foot wingspan. But its pilot will be doing anything but playing - he will be pedaling for all he's worth. He will try to set the world's distance record for human-powered flight in a high-tech recreation of Daedalus' mythical flight to freedom from imprisonment in the Labyrinth. Depending on wind and temperature conditions, the tiny pedal-power aircraft could begin the 74-mile trip between the Greek islands of Crete and Th'ira any time from dawn today to mid-May.

The previous world distance record for human-powered flight was set by the Daedalus prototype, Light Eagle, at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in January, 1987, when the 88-pound craft flew 36.6 miles.

A core team of the project organizers, enthusiastic students, faculty, and recent alumni of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have set up for the flight from the airport at Ir'aklion, Crete, just 10 miles from the spot where Daedalus is said to have soared into everlasting fame. The destination is a long sandy beach on the southern tip of Th'ira, the closest land mass and the most likely point island-hopping ancient mariners would have aimed for.

But there is only a 3 percent chance the flight will take place today as hoped. ``On average, there are only three to five days a year suitable'' for the flight, says project director John Langford. Conditions are best from late March to early April.

The requirements are tough. Wind has to be nearly calm, or under three knots, and temperatures should be under 70 degrees if in daylight hours for the approximately five-hour flight. Tail winds could cut the flight to under four hours, while head winds, which are more prevalent in the eastern Mediterranean, could increase the required time to more than seven hours.

Icarus, Daedalus's son, plunged to his death when his wing wax melted. And the modern Daedalus pilot could face severe dehydration. The pilot will be one of five superbly trained athletes who will have to pump out the equivalent of two grueling marathons in physical effort.

Sitting in a semi-reclining position, the pilot will pedal non-stop. A pause of only 20 seconds could be curtains for the aircraft. But Mr. Langford says the pilot likely would not be seriously injured if the plane crashed since Daedalus will cruise at only 15 miles per hour about 15 feet above the surface of the blue Aegean sea.

To avoid ``hitting the wall'' of long-distance physical output, the pilot will drink every hour more than one liter of a special energy drink. He will have to drink more if the temperature rises. Thus, Daedalus engineers, led by Harold Youngren, have designed a cockpit cooling system to avoid the temperatures that made the interior of the Light Eagle something like ``a closed Baggie with a hair dryer on.''

The pilots include Glenn Tremml, a University of Connecticut medical student who set the current world's record in the Light Eagle; Kanellos Kanellopoulos, a 14-time Greek cycling champion and a member of the Greek cycling team; Erik Schmidt, a full-time amateur cyclist; Frank Scioscia, a member of the US National Cycling Team; and Greg Zack, a national cycling competitor whose grandparents are Greek.

They are on a rotating training schedule and whoever is ``on'' when weather conditions are right becomes the pilot. Engineers on the Daedalus project won't know until 12 hours beforehand if winds are suitable to schedule the flight.

Aside from pilot failure, there is also the danger of inadvertent damage to three delicate Daedalus aircraft that have been handmade for this project.

Though made of such apparently resilient, space-age materials as Thornel carbon fiber, Kevlar, Foamular, and Mylar, the plane can be dented with a dull blow. While loading the planes for the flight to Crete, Greek pilot Kanellopoulos, bumped into one of the little aircraft and broke several of its supporting ribs. ``And that was the best one,'' groaned Langford. Luckily, the damage can be repaired.

Every possible precaution has been taken, though, to make sure Daedelus succeeds. A team of about 30 have worked three years out of offices at MIT, with the help of sponsors such as United Technologies and Pratt & Whitney. Mainly impassioned engineer whiz-kids, infatuated with the idea of marrying ``art and technology,'' John Langford and four friends - all model plane enthusiasts - first joined forces building a Daedalus forerunner, the Chysalis, to compete in the Henry Kremer competition across the English Channel. In 1984, they won the Kremer speed contest with their monarch aircraft. They had built a demonstration human-powered plant, then a fast human-powered plane. ``That led to the Daedalus,'' says Langford, ``because we asked the question `What comes next?' That led us to long distance. How far could we go?''

If the winds are with them, they may have the answer this week.

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