Exclusive: Magnificent men in their flying machines set to soar across the Channel

Patrick Sawer
·4 min read
Pilot Mike Truelove checks his cycle-powered plane, above, which he will ‘fly’ in the contest
Pilot Mike Truelove checks his cycle-powered plane, above, which he will ‘fly’ in the contest

Imagine yourself several metres up in the air, kept aloft in a machine made of plastic and carbon fibre weighing no more than 40kg, and all the time pedalling as if your life depended on it.

That's precisely what a small band of daring men and women are preparing to do when they attempt to fly across the Channel powered simply by their own efforts.

More than 40 years after the first and only crossing of that 22-mile stretch of water in a human powered aircraft (HPA), teams of pilots and engineers are readying themselves to repeat the feat.

Enthusiasts like to point out that such is the difficulty of what the teams will attempt to achieve – combining cutting edge engineering with the supreme athletic ability needed to pedal the aircraft into the air and keep it up there – that more people have flown into space than have flown a human powered aircraft.

The only successful attempt to fly an HPA from the south coast of England to France took place in 1979, when Californian fitness fanatic Bryan Allen completed the journey in 2 hours, 49 minute in his 31kg Gossamer Albatross.

Californian Bryan Allen completed the man-powered Channel crossing in 1979
Californian Bryan Allen completed the man-powered Channel crossing in 1979

“Crossing the English Channel in a human powered aircraft has been done, once before – barely. It was one of the most amazing athletic achievements of our time,” said Alex Proudfoot, an HPA designer and one of the race organisers.

“To think that several international teams are going to attempt the same feat, on the same day, in a race to see who is the fastest, seems almost a bit bonkers. It will be a huge technical and logistical challenge, but most of all a supreme test of athletic and piloting skill.”

The attempt to cross the Channel by human propulsion will take place in June next year, with take offs from Folkestone staggered to avoid the danger of mid-air collisions.

Gossamer Albatross
Gossamer Albatross

The Great Human Powered Aircraft Race will be the first HPA time trial in history, with multiple teams in the air simultaneously, followed below by speed boats with rescue divers in case any are forced to ditch into the sea.

Lined up to take part so far are Wiltshire-based Team Aerocycle and a team from Bordeaux University, with others expected to join over the coming weeks.

The fastest to complete the crossing will receive a £50,000 prize, with £10,000 going to the second fastest and a prize of £5,000 for the fastest female pilot.

The race will take place a few months after the 60th anniversary of the first flight of a human-powered aircraft by Derek Piggott, who covered a distance of 64m (210ft), climbing to a height of 1.8m (6ft) in a craft designed at Southampton University.

Cyclists follow the path of Bryan Allen in his Gossamer Albatross.
Cyclists follow the path of Bryan Allen in his Gossamer Albatross.

The aircraft taking part will be built from toughened carbon and Kevlar fibre and lightweight foam, their wings wrapped in rigid Mylar polyethylene plastic sheeting to make them as light as possible. An HPA with a wingspan of 30 metres weighs as little as 40kg – or just over six stone – less than the pilots themselves.

Indeed, every gram saved reduces the amount of pedal power that the recumbent pilot needs to produce in order to turn a large propeller, a vital factor in determining whether the aircraft will make it across the Channel.

Pedal powered flying machines by numbers
Pedal powered flying machines by numbers

The problem with making aircraft so light is that high winds and thermal currents can cause the wings to shear off. Competition rules state that HPA should not fly more than 50m above the sea for longer than three minutes, though 5m is considered an ideal height.

Then there’s the energy the pilots will be required to produce during a crossing that would take more than two hours.

“Flying a human powered aircraft takes between 300 and 400W of power,” said designer and engineer Fred To, one of the race organisers. “To keep this up over the several hours crossing will require levels of stamina close to what is needed in the Tour de France.”

The British have some way to go if they are to improve on their best efforts to date and land anywhere near France. The longest distance achieved by a British team in a human powered aircraft was 2.6km, when Niall Paterson flew his Aerocycle at the annual Icarus Cup in 2019, while the current duration record for any British HPA is less than seven minutes.

“Managing to cross the channel will be a huge step forward and would be an incredible feat of athleticism and engineering,” said Mr To.