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Bang Goes The Theory: The human-powered plane experiment

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Alex Freeman Alex Freeman | 10:35 UK time, Friday, 30 March 2012

Bang Goes the Theory's resident engineer, inventor and presenter Jem Stansfield is a man who seems to have done pretty much everything: from building a pair of Spiderman-style gloves powered by vacuum cleaners that allows him to scale the sides of buildings to fulfilling that childhood dream of going 'all the way round' on a swing... with the help of a rocket strapped to his body.

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From series four: Can Jem go 360 degrees on a swing?

But, despite having a degree in aeronautical engineering, he had never attempted to build a real flying machine.

In fact, he says, that is precisely because of his training. If it taught him anything, it was how difficult it is to build anything that has to go airborne.

So it must have been a real moment of weakness back in December 2011 when, whilst mulling ideas for the current series of Bang, we came across footage celebrating the 50th anniversary of human-powered flight.

Seeing an aluminium and wooden plane pedalled into the air by an enthusiastic young pilot called Derek Piggott at Lasham Airfield in 1961 had a certain charm to it that attracted Jem's attention.

Inspired by this, and a visit to a team of young engineering students at Southampton University trying to emulate their forebears' achievement, we thought that this might actually be something we stood a chance of being able to do.

Only a handful of aircraft have ever made it off the ground powered by a person's own muscles.

Those that succeeded have generally been the culmination of years of dedicated work - sometimes by huge teams of highly experienced aeronautical engineers - and pedalled by athletes who train to an international competitive standard.

Jem's a keen cyclist, but no elite athlete.

Jem Stansfield works on a part of the wing of the plane in the aircraft hangar.

The hangar isn't big enough to put the wings fully together - it'll be done outside

He and the core team of two Bang engineers had no experience of working with carbon fibre - the material of choice for strong and light craft.

For them to build a plane that stood any chance of taking off in a matter of weeks, and to take on the task of pedalling it into the air seems, in retrospect, rather over-optimistic.

Add to that the facts that Jem had never flown a plane before, and he would have to control the craft whilst pedalling as hard as he could, and it seems simply impossible.

So now, a few months later, the small team of us find ourselves at Lasham airport, unpacking a bubble-wrapped package that contains the vast structure of our aircraft.

The wings alone are 23m across - roughly the size of a Boeing 737. Yet, being built mostly of foam and a kind of cellophane, the whole plane weighs only two thirds of Jem's weight.

Only now, with an aircraft hangar at our disposal, can we put the pieces together to see our plane for the first time.

We're waiting for an early morning without a breath of wind because the merest gust could send the vast lightweight structure tumbling sideways.

Meanwhile Jem has to try to grab some sleep... between practising on his home-built training bicycle (which runs flight simulator software whilst he pedals hard enough to power three 100 watt light bulbs) and putting the finishing touches to the aircraft that we all hope will, very soon, make its maiden - and possibly only - flight.

If it does, we will have shown the childhood dream that so many of us have of being able to fly isn't, perhaps, as impossible as it might seem...

Alex Freeman is one of the producer/directors on Bang Goes The Theory.

You can see how the human-powered flight experiment turned out later in the current series. We'll add the episode date and time here once confirmed.

Bang Goes The Theory continues on Mondays at 7.30pm on BBC One and BBC One HD in Scotland and England, and BBC Two in Northern Ireland and Wales. 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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Well done. More young engineers should be doing creative things and this should be supported by institutions and governments. For your next projects you can find lots of engineering data, programs, spreadsheets that are useful for aerospace engineers on my site (and free): [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]
    Wish you good luck ans success on your projects.

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    We would certainly love to be at the Icarus cup. Whether we can actually take part or not rather depends on the state of our plane by then!

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    Credit is due for discussions on human power. However, no credit to the Gossamer team that designed and built similar aircraft, eventually pedalling across the channel over 30 years ago.
    They even built a solar panel powered aircraft, something becoming commecially viable only recently (BAE Systems).

  • Comment number 7.

    Good Luck on your next flight. I am a keen model plane builder and flyer (gliders). How do you test fly the plane to check its trim and balance, as in the last flight it tipped to one side on launch. Also is it permitted under the rules to store energy. Now don't laugh, but would you be allowed, say to have a big elastic band wound up with your pedals and use it to assist your take off ??

  • Comment number 8.

    pdfbt40: We absolutely would like to give all credit to the Gossamer team, the Daedalus team and others who have achieved amazing feats of human-powered flight. Without learning from the designs and experience of others who had paved the way before us we would never have been able to get off the ground, and I hope that this comes across in the programme.

    What we hoped to achieve with our project was not to enter the record books for long-distance or speed. We wanted to see whether it was now possible to bring human-powered flight out of the realms of the likes of MIT and NASA - or even experts who dedicate many years of their life to such projects like the inspirational Günther Rochelt - and into the realms of the everyman. And we hope to inspire others to take up the challenge and in turn make advances in the technology.

  • Comment number 9.

    Anyone who wants to know the history of human powered flight should read Chris Roper's on-line book at https://www.humanpoweredflying.propdesigner.co.uk/ for the ackground to human powered flight and an explanation of some of the concepts.

    Chris Roper has designed and built a human powered aeroplane, Jupiter and has known many people associated with human powered flight he has written about.

  • Comment number 10.

    I do realise that this may be late! Early aviators used bi-planes for a good reason - it reduced the wing loading by 50%, hence the wings will be correspondingl shorter and stiffer and the risk of toppling, much lower. OK the amount of power needed will be a bit higher. But why on earth sit upright (for max wind resistance of course - silly me)! Look at the Wright Bros plane - the pilot is lying down! it's not impossible to pedal lying down and could reduce any injuries in a crash landing

  • Comment number 11.

    johncr50: We did consider all sorts of different designs, and both recumbent and upright cycling positions. Jem will be replying to all the questions about the technicalities of the final design and his first test flights on his follow-up blog (https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/tv/2012/04/bang-human-powered-plane.shtml%29 so do check that page if you are interested in knowing more about why he chose the design he did.

  • Comment number 12.

    I read somewhere years ago that a aircraft with wings at the rear and 'tail' in front was better in slow flight and was able to fly slower without stalling. In nature a heavy bird like the swan has a wide wing set to the back of its body.


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