Photos by Cami King, Tessa Meares and John Meares
In 1988, a human-powered aircraft flew from Heraklion in Crete to the Greek island of Santorini, setting a new world record for the longest ever flight of such a vehicle – 115 km.
This epic journey lasted 3 hours, 54 minutes and 59 seconds, before it came to an abrupt end when a gust of wind broke off the plane’s tail, sending it crashing into the sea a few feet from the shore.
Despite this vivid example of the very real dangers of such an endeavor, a group of Qatar residents have set their sights on breaking this record, by flying an aircraft powered only by a cyclist over the sea from Bahrain to Qatar.
“We’re doing this because it’s hard,” engineer-turned-airline-pilot John Meares, a member of the Qatar Human Powered Aircraft Group (QHPAG), told us.
“Why do something easy? We thought of a few different ideas, but this one really captured our imagination.”
The group – which is made up more than 20 expats with a variety of skills, including a journalist, a a project manager, an airline pilot, several engineers and two professional cyclists – was formed last year to produce an entry for Qatar’s first Flugtag event.
Meares is the first to admit that the team’s aircraft (pictured above), which they flew successfully in the desert during a test run, didn’t do as well at the actual event as they’d hoped. He said:
“We came about eighth or ninth. On the day, the wind was blowing backwards up the ramp, so nobody was ever going to fly – they were going to fall gracefully. But I can guarantee our aircraft was the only one there which could ever have flown. And we had an absolute ball.”
Despite this inauspicious beginning, the group has now decided to set its sights incredibly high, not only by attempting to break the world record for human powered flight, but also by becoming the first team in the Middle East to successfully get an aircraft like this off the ground.
“If we can have a flight of any sort of distance, then we would be the first group in the region to make a human powered aircraft, and that in itself would be a nice thing to achieve” said Meares.
“And then, if the project gathers momentum, and we get some proper interest, there’s no reason why we can’t then challenge for the world record.”
According to current designs, the group’s aircraft will weigh less than 40kgs, and have a huge wing span of over 30m. The design team have used advanced software to analyze air flow and performance, and they plan to make it using advanced materials like carbon composites and ultra-lightweight plastics.
Meares says that the group is now actively seeking new members and supporters – both locals and expats – who can help them raise the funds, find the right equipment and choose the right design for their (hopefully) world-beating aircraft.
“We don’t want just to be a bunch of western expats aiming to be the first middle eastern group to achieve human powered flight – we really would like it to be a more local project” he told us.
“I’m going to be giving a talk to students at Qatar Aeronautical College soon, which I’m hoping will kick start interest.”
If you’d like to get involved, you can contact the team at [email protected].