The Icarus Cup — A Human Powered Aircraft Competition

January 23, 2014 7:09 am

After just two years, the Icarus Cup has become the world’s most elaborate human-powered aircraft competition. The contest, which is held north of London in the English countryside, pits the innovative pedal-powered aircrafts of engineers, pilots and flying enthusiasts against each other in a series of rigorous aerial competitions that test the limits of speed, endurance and maneuverability. Last summer, Popular Mechanics sent me to cover one of the competing teams led by David Barford, a blue-collar machinist who spent eight years and £8000 ($12,500) building an 88-pound aircraft called the Betterfly in his suburban home. Barford’s design took home the 2013 cup.

Next time you’re at the newsstand pick up a copy of the February issue of Popular Mechanics. Below are some images from the story, but the essay written by Jeff Wise is a must read as well.

Many thanks to Photo Editor Allyson Torrisi.

David Barford in his garage where he designed and built most of his aircraft. Some pieces, like the wings, had to be shortened to the exact size of the longest room in his house.

David Barford and his wife Ruth having tea in their VW Bus, their home for the duration of the competition.

Team Betterfly guides it's delicate aircraft across the grass of England's Sywell Aerodome.

David Barford of team Betterfly just before takeoff.

Team Betterfly in flight.

Team Betterfly rounding the first corner in the triangle course attempt.

Team Betterfly nearing the end of their competition winning triangle course attempt.

Team Betterfly walking their airplane back to the takeoff site after a flight.

Members of Team Betterfly work overtime after an unassisted takeoff on grass resulted in a smashed cowling.

More repairs on the aircraft's cowling.

A member of Team Edgley inspecting a recent modification to the aircraft.

John Edgley shaving minute details off a piece of foam for his aircraft.

A member of Team Edgley tests out the joystick which controls the canard.

Inside a makeshift hangar at the airfield, University of Bath students attach blue foam to their propeller blades.

Peter & Jo White have volunteered as marshals for both years at the Icarus Cup. They participate out of pure interest and their love for aviation. Marshals keep note of time, windspeed and make sure everyone stays safe during the festivities.

A pre flight meeting covered by a local TV station.

With the large propeller designed for an unassisted takeoff attached, Paul of Team Betterfly waits just before takeoff.

Team Betterfly waiting for the go ahead to take off.

Barford's friends and family take their pre-takeoff positions around betterfly.

Wheels up for Team Betterfly.

Team Airglow in flight.

Team Betterfly putting their aircraft away in a temporary hangar tent.

Flight instructor and glider pilot Mike Truelove prepares for takeoff in Airglow, the aircraft that won the 2012 Icarus Cup. In this competition pilots double as engineers.

Mike Truelove of team Airglow just before takeoff.

Team Airglow in flight. 

Southampton University was the only team to use a non-recumbent bicycle.

Southampton University was featured by a TV crew for most of the competition.

Southampton attempting takeoff.

Bill Brooks measuring the wind speed so he can decide if it's a safe enough speed to fly. Bill is the chairman of the human powered flight group and he came up with the rules and format for the Icarus Cup.

Team Edgley making some minor adjustments before takeoff.

Team Edgley waiting to take off. The team won no points during the competition.

Clive Davidson of team Edgley tests the machine before flight.

Bill Brooks and marshals test the wind and discuss the possibility of flying.

Team Edgley holding their aircraft at the end of another trying day without flight.

Human powered aircraft gather at the end of the 2013 Icarus Cup. Of the four planes that competed, only two flew more than 1 minute. Organizers hope to turn this obscure hobby into a sport.


  • Jaka Vinsek says:

    Awesome.. ! Great job..

  • HyunChul Kim says:

    I have been making HPA, too
    Let me introduce my blog.

    in Korean

  • Anthony says:

    I really enjoyed the picture show you have here. Is everyone in your organization an engineer or craftsman up for a challenge? I myself am trying to figure out how you guys design and test parts from the prop to the wings, to avoiding the use of a gearbox to power the prop. Plus I never had any luck with epoxy and cloth on the blue foam. It almost always bubbled or came off when the surface got hot or you bumped it hard. Vacu-bagging didn’t seem to help, but I suspected my pump was maybe to weak. I’d love to correspond with you in email if you have the time.

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