Thirty years ago, on Jan. 21, 1987, American triathlete Lois McCallin set three women’s world records for human-powered flight, which still stand today. From California’s Edwards Air Force Base, 29-year-old McCallin made history.
At peak physical condition, McCallin — an amateur triathlete — had been training for months to pedal a gossamer-light plane into the air. She flew by leg-power alone for 9.3 miles at an average speed of 12.4 mph.
The Michelob Light Eagle was an experimental human-powered aircraft built as part of the Daedalus Project. The ultimate aim of the Daedalus Project was to fly a human-powered plane from Crete to the island of Santorini in the Mediterranean, recreating the mythical flight of Daedalus and his less-fortunate son, Icarus.
The success of that project, though, was far in the future.
Her job on Jan. 21 was to take off and fly the 91.93 pound plane around a 15 km course, maintaining level flight and passing over regulatory two-meter (6.56 feet) high stanchions to really “prove” the plane was in the air.
Rolling along the concrete runway next to the dry lakebed, the plane’s lightweight wings were stabilized by a helper at each tip, but once in the air, McCallin, who weighed 121 pounds, was on her own.
First she had to fly the Light Eagle to a turnpoint 4.2 miles away, flying just metres above the ground. She successfully reached that turnpoint – and with it set a women’s world record for straight-line distance for human-powered aircraft.
Staying in the air, she flew on further, to the second turnpoint. She rounded that and flew the final leg to a third turnpoint.
Continuing straight she landed the plane 1,072 feet later. She had flown a total distance of 9.59 miles and been in the air for 37 minutes, 38 seconds.
Her flight set three women’s world records:
Those records still stand today.
The day after McCallin set her three records, fellow pilot Glenn Tremml flew the Michelob Light Eagle around a 36.44 mile closed circuit course to set an overall world record for distance around a closed circuit course in human-powered flight. That record too, still stands too.
The flights made history, and they also provided invaluable information for the researchers planning their bigger flight in the Mediterranean.
The history of the Daedalus Project is long, but 15 months later, on April 23, 1988, the Daedalus Project successfully flew the successor to the Light Eagle, a human-powered plane named MIT Daedalus, 71.45 miles from Crete to Santorini. That historic flight earned international attention, and also has never been bettered.