Colin Gore, a PhD student in materials science at the University of Maryland, carefully hooks his bike shoes into the cranks of a motor-less helicopter. He sits in the spider-like machine's central hub, surrounded by four delicately engineered carbon fiber arms, each of which supports a super-light rotor. The machine spans the length of a basketball court, yet it weighs only 75 pounds. With Gore's slim frame in place, it now weighs 210 pounds. And it's ready for flight.
In a reclined position, Gore grips the helicopter's hand cranks and begins to move his hands and feet like the pistons of a four-stroke engine. Slowly, as the motion of his arms and legs reels in a line attached to each of the four rotors, pairs of the helicopter's blades begin to spin in opposite directions. Moments later, Gore is doing what has been dreamed about for centuries: He is flying a human-powered helicopter.
More than that, though, he is breaking a world record. The man-and-machine combination hovers a foot or two above the ground -- as if dangling on a string -- for 40 seconds, the longest amount of time such a feat has been accomplished.
"It's already one of the highlights of my life," Gore told me -- and that was even before his flight. But 40 seconds, world record notwithstanding, isn't what Gore and his team are seeking. Gore, along with 35 fellow engineering students at U of M, are chasing after the Sikorsky prize: a 30-year-old contest that promises $250,000 to the first team that can build a human-powered helicopter to fly for 60 seconds -- at three meters off the ground.