Magnificent men in their flying machines

Team Betterfly from Northampton piloted by Mercedes engineers Paul Wales and David Barford
Team Betterfly from Northampton piloted by Mercedes engineers Paul Wales and David Barford

People can go along to watch those magnificent men in their flying machines – but with a difference.

The Royal Aeronautical Society is holding its second Icarus Cup competition at Sywell Aerodrome until Sunday.

The competition, which is for human powered aircraft, attracts teams from around the country who have to complete a series of challenges including a 200m sprint race, a 1km race, a slalom course, a take-off performance and landing accuracy task and try to complete a triangular course.

Flying takes place every day, weather permitting, between 6am and 9am and 6pm and 10pm, and entry to watch is free.

The competition is organised by the Human Powered Aircraft Group of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

For a pilot, human powered flight offers unique challenges because controlling a slow flying, lightweight aircraft demands a high degree of skill and at the same time the pilot must generate enough power to take off and stay in the air. As technology has advanced it has become less necessary for the pilot to be an extremely fit athlete, meaning anyone has the potential to be a human powered pilot.

The ultimate aim of the group is to get human powered flight recognised as an Olympic sport.

Human powered aircraft are made of ultra-light materials and have a wingspan of about 25m. The aircraft built in the 1970s were so flimsy that they could only be flown in virtually still air. The machines being built nowadays can cope with light winds.

Industrialist was the main driving force

Without the generous support of industrialist Henry Kremer human powered flight would still be in its infancy.

Mr Kremer set up the Kremer Prizes in 1959, and they are administered by the Human Powered Aircraft Group.

The first Kremer prize of £50,000 was won on August 23, 1977, by Dr Paul MacCready when Bryan Allen successfully flew his Gossamer Condor around two markers half a mile apart, starting and ending the course at least three metres above the ground. On June 12, 1979, the same pair won £100,000 when Mr Allen flew from England to France in MacCready’s Gossamer Albatross.

There are still three Kremer prizes waiting to be won, including flying a marathon in under an hour.


The Icarus Cup was introduced to inspire more people to design, build and fly aircraft themselves and provide an environment for them to meet, compete and share knowledge. The challenge not only lies in the tasks, but also in the construction of the aircraft and the athleticism of the pilot. Planes must be durable, yet lightweight, and the pilot must be able to produce enough power to remain airborne while keeping control of the aircraft.