This will be Flight Test No. 40.
In the center of the contraption — a 90-pound, human-powered helicopter made mostly of carbon fiber, balsa wood, foam and string — is University of Maryland doctoral candidate Colin Gore, decked out in orange cycling clothes and safety goggles.
Gore will pedal, as he would on a bicycle, until the craft they call the Gamera II XR lifts off the floor. A student stands at each of the four massive propellers as they wait for the cue.
"Tension on, take off," comes the order, and Gore's face turns red with effort as he pedals. The propellers turn and the Gamera lifts about a foot off the ground.
The College Park students have been trying for years to win the $250,000 American Helicopter Society Sikorsky Prize, an award that has gone unclaimed since its inception in 1980.
To claim the prize, they must keep their human-powered helicopter in the air for at least 60 seconds, while staying within a 10-meter-by-10-meter area and reaching a height of at least 10 feet.
In August, the team was able to get the Gamera into the air for 65.1 seconds and get as high as 9.4 feet. They broke world records in the process, but now they want the prize.
This week, the students — 51 graduates and undergraduates have worked on the Gamera — used a large space in the Baltimore Convention Center. Their several attempts, before judges from the National Aeronautic Association and the American Helicopter Society International, have drawn media attention from around the region.
The $250,000 prize — which would go to the university, not the students — isn't the only allure.
"It's one of the most thrilling things I've ever done in my life," said Gore, 26. "More people have walked on the moon than have flown in a human-powered helicopter."
The team stopped Thursday after dozens of unsuccessful attempts to reach the 10-foot height mark. They did get the Gamera about 6 feet up.
In 2011, a University of Maryland team with an earlier version of the Gamera set the first world record of a human-powered helicopter taking flight — then, less than a foot of height was enough to set the mark. The flights are certified by the National Aeronautic Association and, for world records, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in Switzerland.
Elizabeth Weiner, a graduate student at Maryland, was working as the communicator between students on the sidelines and the pedaling pilot.
"Achieving the impossible is fun, for sure," said Weiner, 23. "People have said we couldn't do it, and we're showing them that we can."
William Staruk, another graduate student, said the biggest challenge isn't the helicopter's construction. It's powering it.
The team has to deal with "how poor of an engine a human is," Staruk said.
Staruk said jokingly that he has enjoyed the sleepless nights and general sense of panic the project has given him. But he also said he has appreciated the opportunity to work with "fabulous engineers."
Darryll Pines, dean of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering, described the effort as "a labor of love" as he watched the students make a few attempts at winning the prize and breaking their own record.
He said he was prepared to pull the plug on the project a year ago — for financial reasons, and because he felt the students had already accomplished a lot. But he realized it wasn't about what he wanted.
"We'll go as far as we can go," he said. "I'm very happy for them, and I hope that they achieve their goals."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun