Student sailplane makes first flight, class prepares for competition

University Park, Pa. — The PSU Zephyrus, a human-powered aircraft being constructed by the Penn State AERSP 2/404H team -- also known as the sailplane class -- flew its first successful flight April 25 at the Mifflin County Airport.

The project, led by aerospace engineering professor Mark Maughmer and graduate student Julia Cole, has existed for several years, pursuing the design and development of a human-powered aircraft (HPA) to compete for the Kremer International Sporting Aircraft Prize.

The class was introduced to the Kremer prize in the spring of 2007, and because of the class’s history with composites and light aircraft structures, it was uniquely qualified to pursue the prize, Cole said.

The first PSU Zephyrus flight was of a radio-controlled model, requiring the team to make further modifications to its stability and handling characteristics in order to be eligible for the Kremer competition. So far, the class has made great advancements during the four years since the beginning of its design .

"Once a general configuration was determined, traditional aircraft sizing methods were used to design the wing and tail planform and the resulting structure was analyzed to ensure it could complete the Kremer Sport prize course," Cole explained. "Finally, in the past six months the design 'closed' and final construction of the prototype was started and finished."

Cole said the class has been fortunate to have Blaine Rawdon of Boeing to assist and advise from southern California. Rawdon has worked on numerous aircraft, including the Gossamer Condor, Gossamer Albatross, Gossamer Penguin and Solar Challenger.

The project is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium and the Department of Aerospace Engineering. It has also received supply donations from Boeing.

Ben Pipenberg, aerospace engineering senior and chief engineer for PSU Zephyrus, said the original design for the aircraft has changed more than 20 times since it was drawn up four years ago.

"We spent the first two years learning about previous human-powered flight attempts and practicing our construction techniques," he explained. "Last fall, we made several significant design changes, and by the end of the spring semester we had our final aircraft planform designed."

Pipenberg said almost all of the final aircraft construction took place this semester, but some aspects will carry over into next fall. The PSU Zephyrus team hopes to complete the necessary modifications for the Kremer competition within the next year.

The sailplane class is an honors course offered by the Department of Aerospace Engineering. It typically includes 20 to 30 students who often enroll in their first year and remain through graduation.

"This year will mark the fourth class of seniors to graduate since the project began, so there have been a huge number of students to contribute to the overall design of the project," Pipenberg said. "The finished prototype that flew [several weeks ago] is really the culmination of the work of 30 or 40 students."

In addition to PSU Zephyrus, a subgroup of the class for the last several years has competed in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Undergraduate/Graduate Design/Build/Fly Competition -- an electric-powered, radio-controlled aircraft competition.

Dubbed the 'PSU Zephyrus,' the student-designed and built, human-powered aircraft made its maiden flight on April 25. Design for the plane began in spring 2007. Click on the image above for a larger version. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated May 10, 2011