Bang Goes The Theory's human-powered plane experiment: The results

Tuesday 24 April 2012, 11:06

Jem Stansfield Jem Stansfield Presenter

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When invisible forces suddenly pluck you off the ground it's a massive shock, even if you've just spent weeks trying to make it happen.

And up until that moment I was far more worried about dealing with the consequences of failure than those of success.

But as I started to get a good view of the tops of people's heads and registered the weird, unexpected near silence of flight I realised I had but an instant to figure out how to control and power a brand new aeroplane.

When myself and my two mates Chris Hill and Jim Milner start designing and building the more extreme stuff for Bang Goes The Theory I know I'm probably going to be the test pilot.

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Watch Jem's pedalling power test

In some ways it's great but you don't half feel the responsibility.

Often the first chance we get to properly test a completed item is the day the cameras arrive. And I know that all the effort that we've put into it will mean very little if I don't somehow get it to perform on the day.

Designing and making a plane that works on pedal power took the most amount of resources we'd ever put into a job.

Before dawn on the day of our attempted flight even the boss of the programme was at Lasham airfield along with the camera crew.

There was also a crowd of pilots, photographers and eminent aero engineers who very much liked the look of the machine we'd constructed.

But Lasham is a working airfield and I knew that we only had a two hour window to try getting our plane airborne before the real planes started to come in and we had to stop.

If nothing happened in that time all we'd have really managed was to build a very odd looking bicycle.

Almost everything else we'd ever built for Bang Goes The Theory were things that I'd been thinking about for months or sometimes years until I felt they were ready.

In all that time however, an image of a one man aircraft that had to be pedalled into the sky had never once crossed my mind - until this series when Alex our producer planted it in there very firmly.

Also whilst filming at the new Olympic velodrome in Stratford for episode six there were a bunch of interviews with British Olympians being played out on the big screen behind us.

Over half of them said that the superpower they would most like to have was to be able to fly.

The thing is by then I knew that they all actually had enough muscle power to do it they just needed someone to build the correct exoskeleton - and that's what we were on to. (In some ways it's a plane but in many ways it really is just the exoskeleton a human being needs to put on in order to give them the power of flight.)

Back at the airfield with me in the cockpit, the first attempts didn't look good at all.

Jem Stansfield on the plane at dawn with his Bang team running beside him

Jem and the Bang team start the experiment at dawn

Although the early morning was almost as still as you could hope for, there was a breath of wind and we couldn't risk that flipping the lightweight plane.

So I had to pedal into the wind, which meant across the width - rather than down the length - of the runway.

With only a few metres of tarmac to gather speed we had no idea if I'd be quick enough to take off.

Pedalling uphill to avoid that side wind I couldn't seem to get any decent roll control. You have to turn towards the upward wing so the other wing effectively speeds up, gets more lift and evens things out - great in theory. Grrr.

The aeroplane turned uncontrollably, ploughing its precious and delicate wing into the ground.

I bailed out to try to minimise the impact on the airframe but luckily we discovered that if handled thoughtfully the craft seemed more robust than we'd ever hoped.

Now massively feeling the pressure we headed for an old part of the runway.

With a little headwind and flatter ground I got a small hop. I could tell because the sound of the wheels on tarmac suddenly went briefly silent.

At this point though some of the amassed eminent figures in aviation were questioning my piloting - was that really the reason it was almost bound to the ground?

We decided to put a pretty fit and phenomenally experienced pilot in the hot seat.

He too only managed a very small hop but crucially he was able to give me definite advice on using our homemade control system.

Success!!  Jem (with team) finally makes a 'hop' into the air

Success! Jem manages a few seconds in the air. Image copyright: Arthur Willmer

I took on board everything he said and cycled into a sensation that I simply didn't know existed. It's literally like being plucked from the ground.

Flying in a pedal-powered aeroplane feels like you've just dragged something out of the world of cartoons and into the fringes of reality.

It wasn't a huge flight - seconds long and 30 yards at best - but we'd definitely made an aircraft.

An aircraft powered by a fairly ordinary human.

In the history of the world it's highly likely that man is by far the heaviest creature ever to fly using muscle power alone. I now hope it happens far more often and gets easier with every attempt.

Jem Stansfield is a presenter of Bang Goes The Theory.

You can watch the human-powered plane take flight in episode seven of Bang Goes The Theory on Monday, 30 April at 7.30pm on BBC One and BBC One HD in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. Viewers in Wales can watch on the same day at 8pm on BBC Two. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Seating position doesn't look great for power output. Recumbent cycling position might be better, and would reduce drag.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I agree with Toby, a recumbent position may be better. The wing design is beautiful though, and the flight looked good (if short!). Perhaps a light cord could be attached to the wing struts near the tips and light tugging be applied from the guys on the ground to act as ailerons to level the wings and improve lift during further test flights... Until the basic frame has been further developed that is.

    Oh, and up the gearing a little! I hope someone keeps tweaking this delightful creation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Wow, those wings are beautiful but I have to agree with Toby and Gareth. A bit more work required on:
    Aero position of the cyclist
    Lost power through flexing of the airframe
    Gearing/propeller size & pitch

    I hope you keep working on it, it could be a great flyer!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Good effort! bad position! Why bolt upright? you need to gain air speed but you're sat there like a parachute? I'm sure you have a reason.
    Keep it up Jem, I'm living vicariously at least :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    "In the history of the world it's highly likely that man is by far the heaviest creature ever to fly using muscle power alone. I now hope it happens far more often and gets easier with every attempt."

    Sadly we don't seem to have made much progress since Gossamer Condor in 1977 and Gossamer Albatross in 1979. Looking at the pilot position on those two aircraft compared to this one you are definitely not getting the best balance and power output. Mind you, it's an excellent effort considering the amount of time you had to design and build it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I'll remember Bryan Allen.

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    Comment number 7.

    I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I truly don't understand why you didn't investigate either recumbent-bicycle or hang-glider/microlight design. And your lack of roll control comes from a thing called "wind shear", where the air a few tens of feet above the ground moves significantly faster than the air close to the ground, so the wind speed over each wing is different. Basic hang-glider flight training. Missed opportunity.

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    Comment number 8.

    Astonishing how so much effort can be so misdirected. Learned little from the earlier attempts. One of the crucial things of the Gossamer designs were their simplicity, the wing here might be beautiful but its hopeless, there will never be enough control at low speeds and that supermarket trolley castor on the front, come on! didn't anyone think of talking to Chris Hoy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    There is not a lot of difference between the upright and recumbent position, most of the drag is from the wing although a bit of fairing in front of the pilot will decrease the pilot's drag in half, but it is still a fraction of the wing drag.

    A 3 metre (ten foot) 2 bladed propeller is usually as efficient as propellers get, bigger is just heavier.

    A lot of human powered aircraft design is non-intuative and you have to crunch the numbers to find out exactly how strong and often even more important, how stiff the structure is.

    See!/SUHPA for another human powered aircraft and how that got on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Non intuitive? Is that why it took so long? But even so its evident he's being pushed along the ground because he can't get enough speed, and as soon as they let go when he's off the ground, he loses control. One of the OTHER crucial things that was learnt on the Gossamers was Wash in-Wash out. And with this design there's absolutely no possibility of it. Just look at it. Hopeless! Was our money involved?

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Great Jem that you got airbourne, modifications can now be made in seating position and if you use a professional cyclist in future who knows the time and distance that you be acheived.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Proof of principle. I hope that the the aircraft will continue to be developed by a volunteer group somewhere, rather than disappearing into a BBC warehouse.
    The Gossamers were developed to win prizes intended to encourage practical human powered aircraft, though the whole concept seems to have faded from view in the years since.
    Southampton university still use the concept as a training tool for their aeronautical engineering students.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The problem is the pilot’s weight!
    I would suggest a re-design, so go back to the drawing board and incorporate helium to counter the Pilots weight, and then less effort will be needed to power the aircraft.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Helium is a very limited resource and would provide only very small amounts of extra lift. Better perhaps to put the propeller ahead of the wing to increase lift from it's airflow and the pilot prone to reduce drag.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    As a schoolkid, we went to Manston & saw the Gossamer Albatross before it flew across the Channel. I met Don Dupont, & Bryan was always cycling past our school. I'm even in the documentary...which would have been a good starting place for the Bang Goes team! All those technical specifications are available, all the problems well known, so why has that flight been airbrushed or forgotten by the team when we already know what won't work? How to do it better 33 years on would be a worthy enterprise, not how to invent a paler imitation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Arrg! Not the Helium in the wing "trick", Howie D! The wings hold 2 to 3 KG of air, replacing it with Helium would result in about a 1 to 1 1/2 KG reduction in the weight and there is the problem of making the wing gas-tight which may add the weight you save by using Helium in the first place.

    Jem's aircraft looks like it is based on Velair, see with it's rear mounted propeller and rotating wingtips for ailerons although there is a copy of the Gossamer Condor plans that the late Paul MacCready used to sell at if you feel the need to build your own.

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    Comment number 17.

    A great attempt Jem. We were cheering you all the way. There have been many comparisons with Paul Mc Cready and the Gossamer Condor/Albatross planes but no one seems to have mentioned the successful flight from Crete to Santorini by Kanellos Kanellopoulos in Daedalus designed and built by MIT. 74 miles in the air by human muscle! See Aeromodeller August 1988 for a full account.

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    Comment number 18.

    There's plenty more potential in this aircraft - and pilot. It was a tall order to set up a new aircraft and teach the pilot to fly it all in the same day. We did add a pilot fairing later but made some other changes including the elevator angle which prevented getting better flights later that day. We also had crosswind conditions. In a light westerly there's no reason why flights the length of Lasham runway should not be possible. I think given the inexperience of the team and the short timescale, it's a great achievement. I like the simplicity of design. Hopefully it will be out again at the Icarus Cup event, Lasham 14-22nd July.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    The (roll) control issue was solved by Gossamer Condor when they realised that once a turn was initiated, they needed to REVERSE the control input. Because of large wing span and relatively tight turn radius and very low airspeed, inner wing needed higher incidence than outer to maintain balance in the turn.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    The article ibushell refers to should be on the Royal Aeronautical Society Human Powered Aircraft site dowload page at but it and other links cause an error page to be displayed but a copy can be seen at


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