Vertical Flight: Two Ends of the Spectrum

By Scott Spangler on June 5th, 2011

After seeing its inaugural (public) flight at EAA AirVenture 2008, I’ve been following the the development of the Martin Jetpack. Beyond the sci fi coolness of the Kiwi project, a few questions came to mind, like what happens when the engine fails? With ducted fans instead of rotors, it can’t autorotate, so how far can it fall before the pilot ceases to function?

The Martin Aircraft Company started to answer those question on May 21, when a remotely piloted Jetpack, manned by a weighted dummy, George Jetson, climbed almost vertically to 5,000 feet and took off cross-country, a helicopter following it. Then they fired a BRS Aerospace ballistic parachute, which slowed gravity’s inexorable come-to-mama embrace to 15.7 mph.

As the landing seems quite survivable, the website says the Jetpack is designed to protect the pilot in a free fall from 30 feet. The structure, from the Kevlar hoops around the fan nacelles to the arms that hold the control sticks in place, acts as an energy absorbing roll cage.

That leaves one last question: What about the no-fly zone, altitudes above free-fall survival and below the minimum altitude needed for the ballistic chute to open and slow one’s return to Mother Earth? There’s no answer yet, but testing is underway. And the goal is to negate the no-fly zone.

Another historic day in the annals of vertical flight took place shortly before the Jetpacks impressive climb—and safe return from—5,000 feet above sea level. On the dyslexic date of May 12, students at the A. James Clark School of Engineering in Maryland made the first flight of a human powered helicopter.

As you can see, it only lasted a few seconds and gained a few inches of altitude. Like its human-powered predecessors, the Gamera (Japanese for a giant flying turtle) is constructed of balsa, carbon fiber, foam, and Mylar. With four 42-foot rotors separated by 60-foot cross bars, it weighs 100 pounds.

The pilot, Judy Wexler, a University of Maryland grad student, sits in a module under the arms’ intersection. Like the pilot of powered helicopters, all her appendages were busy. Instead of controlling the cyclic, collective, and anti-torque pedals, they were peddling.

The flight achieves what is, perhaps, aviation’s last “first flight,” and the NAA is now verifying the records. But this is but the first step toward the American Helicopter Society’s $250,000 Sikorsky Prize, established in 1980 for the first controlled flight—of at least one minute—of a human-powered helicopter. Now that I can’t wait to see. – Scott Spangler

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One Response to “Vertical Flight: Two Ends of the Spectrum”

  1. Joe Gudjons Says:

    I’ve been following the Jetpack and it’s an exiting project!

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