One of my favorite classic movies is “Flight of the Phoenix” (the 1965 version starring Jimmy Stewart) where a motley group of people flying out from a remote oil production facility crash land in the Sahara desert. With little hope of survival against starvation, dehydration, and the deprivation of roaming raiders, they latch onto a plan put forward by one of the crash survivors, Heinrich Dorfmann (played by the legendary Hardy Krüger), who says he is an aeronautical engineer, to build a new plane from the wreckage of the old and fly themselves to safety.
[SPOILERS in INVISITEXT]
The big third act reveal is that Dorfmann has only ever designed scale RC aircraft, not “real” planes, which sends the morale of the team into a nosedive. But, in the end, he is proven right, and the plane flies.
James Tascione is Heinrich Dorfmann, in more than one way, and he even got my reference to the Hardy Krüger character when we chatted on the phone recently. James is building a plane of his own design in the desert (in this case, it’s the Mojave), all by himself.
Two years ago, James had the idea. He was a lifetime RC airplane builder, and had been a touring cyclist. He was well aware of the history of human-powered flight, from the Daedelus in the ’80s, to the recent winner of the Sikorsky prize for a human-powered helicopter. Modern versions of pedal-powered airplanes have been turning to carbon fiber and other exotic, expensive materials to create durable aeronautic structures at extremely low weights (under 100 pounds). But James thought he could build something just as good, with inexpensive parts and materials, that could ultimately allow normal makers to fly under their own power.
And so he quit his job as a fry cook, moved to a hanger in the desert, sold his van for materials, and started building Pedalusion.
The design of Pedalusion (and even the name) has evolved over the last 24 months, but in her current form, she’s a 96′ wingspan pusher-type (the propeller is behind the plane and pushes it) canard (meaning the tail is at the front of the plane) biplane (double set of wings). She’s made of poplar wood and hard foam insulation, glued together with Gorilla Glue to make the composite structure. There’s some aluminum tubing for the body and landing gear (scooter wheels!), and the rigging is fishing line. Almost all the materials have been sourced from Home Depot and Lowe’s stores. When she’s ready to fly, she’ll weigh just North of 62 pounds, and require about 1/4hp of human effort to fly.
While James has designed and mostly built Pedalusion to be competition-sized (yes, there are human-powered airplane competitions), that’s just as a proof-of-concept. Most other competition craft are being built by well-financed teams, using exotic materials, and are generally one-offs. Once Pedalusion has flown, he plans to downscale the design, and (hopefully) with a bit of backing, start putting out kits that anyone can afford to build and fly.
When he was collecting the above photos and sending them to me for this piece, James told me it was like cracking open a time capsule. I pointed out that he’d likely been so focused on the day-to-day work, it was easy to lose track of the big picture. His response: “I see where my life has been focused by the day and I am at least glad to know I didn’t waste any time.”
No wasted time, for sure, because Pedalusion is nearing completion and James is getting ready for the next stage. He’s had few visitors over the years. Bryan Allen, who famously flew the pedal-powered Gossamer Albatross over the English Channel has been by, but otherwise James has been doing this on his own, and is looking forward to making a little noise with the plane he likes to call a “hedge hopper.”
James believes Pedalusion will be assembled and ready for a tow-test in about six weeks. If everything goes well there, he’ll install the drive and fan system and be ready for full human-powered flight 2-3 weeks after that. If possible, MAKE will be there to chronicle the event.
If you’d like to get in touch with James about the project, and even stop by his hanger in the Mohave desert, leave a comment in this post, and we’ll make sure he gets word. You can also find him on Facebook.