The Flying Dutchman Teen Takes to the Skies in Pedal-Powered Plane

At the tender age of 16, Jesse van Kuijk already knew he wanted to fly. But he didn't take flying lessons or train as a flight attendant. Instead, he built his own pedal-powered aircraft and became one of a select group of people to take to the skies under their own steam.


Jesse van Kuijk loves his sister. But lend her his airplane? No way. He's worked too hard and too long on the muscle-powered aircraft -- he's its developer, builder and pilot. Van Kuijk even turned down a plan pushed by his sponsors to let a pro cyclist climb on the pedal-powered aircraft he was building for the first flight.

When asked questions like, "Can I have a go?," the thin, amiable, 19-year-old Dutchman turns tough. There is absolutely no way, he says -- no one else is going flying this machine. No way. And that's that.

Van Kuijk lives in a small provincial Dutch town called Budel, 25 kilometers south of Eindhoven and 35 kilometers (15.5 miles) west of the German border. And the best thing about Budel -- according to van Kuijk, anyway -- is its small airport. It's just 10 minutes away from his family home and by the tender age of 16 van Kuijk had already made up his mind: He wanted to fly.

His friends were ambivalent, but the gawky youth was convinced he could do it. Not only that, he was certain he could take to the skies under his own muscle. Outer space, airplanes, tornadoes and windmills (he is Dutch, after all) had always fascinated him.

Without ever even having been on a plane, he began to read about the subject. He read about the "Mufli," -- short for the German phrase, "muskelkraft flieger," which means muscle-powered aircraft -- that two German engineers shot into the Berlin skies in the 1930s.

He read about the Gossamer Condor, which in 1977 became the first human-powered aircraft to fly a figure eight. The Gossamer Condor flew almost 2.2 kilometers and, in the process, won the very first Kremer prize of £50,000 pounds (€58,000). The prize was established by industrialist Henry Kremer in 1959 to reward pioneers in human-powered flight, but it took 18 years before anyone claimed it.

A Plane Made Out Of Balsa And Polyurethane

The lanky Dutch student also studied the Reynolds number, which describes the ratio of inertial forces to viscous forces, an essential figure for air flight. He also happily studied fluid mechanics. Without these, nothing on earth flies -- not birds, not an Airbus and certainly not van Kuijk.

Dates pour out of him as he relates the history of human-powered flight. The year 1979 was another landmark: Another craft, dubbed the Gossamer Albatross, made a successful flight over the English Channel, flying over 35 kilometers in less than three hours. The Gossamer Albatross was flown by American Bryan Allen, who now works in California as a software engineer for the Mars exploration project. Van Kuijk contacted Allen and the two exchanged emails about van Kuijk's dream of self-powered flight.

In 2006, with his calculations complete, van Kuijk began to collect building materials. For over three years he gathered extremely light balsa wood, polyurethane and the light, rip-resistant foil that would eventually line the craft's 26-meter-wide (85 feet) wings. And then he built what he had designed.

"A few people thought I should have made a model first," van Kuijk says. But model building wasn't his thing. Besides, he had calculated everything, there were plenty of examples he could look at and he didn't want to waste any time. He was sure the thing would fly.

Finally, last Sunday, there it was: seven meters long, four meters high, the collapsible construction that van Kuijk and his parents had to put together at Kempen airport. It took three hours to set up. Not until the afternoon would airport officials tell him the conditions were good for flying, with no rain or wind forecast. And he could only make his attempt at man-powered flight after eight o'clock at night anyway, after the local flying club had left the small runway.

Warming Up For The Flight On a Bicycle

Shortly beforehand, Van Kuijk warmed up for his attempt, cycling in circles on an ordinary bike at the end of the runway. He wore a cycling helmet and on his skinny arms, black foam elbow protectors. He would accelerate the aircraft using a long bicycle chain, attached at a 90 degree angle to a red propeller. Oddly, the whole thing -- all balsa wood, aluminum and plastic wrap -- looked most like a giant version of some airplane enthusiast's miniature model.

Just making the three-meter-long rotor took 35 hours. The rotor will be powered by van Kuijk's legs, which will be cycling as fast as they can for liftoff. When van Kuijk started the whole project in 2006 it was already clear to him that it would take some time and that he would probably put on some weight before he was ready to fly. He estimated he might weigh as much as 70 kilos (154 pounds) by the time the plane was ready. Today he weighs a feather light 53 kilos, three kilos less than his pedal-powered aircraft. Last year van Kuijk studied aerospace engineering at a technical university in Delft, 150 kilometers away. But every weekend he would come home to Budel to work on his aircraft.

The moment finally arrived. Van Kuijk took his place aboard his craft, placed the helmet on his head. Behind him, a nephew supported the aluminum and wood construction. Two men held the wings horizontal -- just in case it got windy or the vehicle became unbalanced. Van Kuijk put his foot down and began to pedal. The propeller begans to turn. The aircraft moved forwards.

"The Earth Under My Feet Slipped Away"

And then suddenly, unbelievably, "the earth under my feet slipped away," van Kuijk exclaimed afterwards. He was flying! Alone, under his own power and in the aircraft he had designed and built. His aircraft flew, he had always known it would. But he could barely believe he had actually managed to defeat gravity's pull.

Then he felt a jolt. The bicycle chain quietly slipped off the cog. The red motor trundled to a stop. "And I couldn't accelerate any further," van Kuijk expained. Seconds after he lifted off, he sank back to the ground again. Altitude: 1.5 meters (about 5 feet). Distance: maybe 10 or 15 meters. Then, with a crash, his aircraft touched back down on the small, country runway.

It didn't seem to matter too much to van Kuijk though. He looked around him, up at the airport buildings, toward the control tower. Then he smiled a very big smile. This Dutchman can fly.

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