23 Apr 2018

Thirty years since the longest human-powered flight in history

It is exactly 30 years since Kanellos Kanellopoulos, a Greek cyclist who competed in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, functioned as human engine for the 1988 MIT Deadalus project, completing a 115.11km flight between the Greek islands of Crete and Santorini.

His record-breaking flight – the longest human-powered flight in history – took 3 hours, 54 minutes, and began at 7am on 23 April 1988. The super-fit cyclist used the power in his legs to fly Daedalus over 115km of open sea and set two FAI world records that still stand today.

Daedalus was a unique, human-powered aircraft designed and flown by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1988. The team's aim was to echo the flight of Daedalus from Ancient Greek mythology and fly between the islands of Crete and Santorini – a distance of more than 100km.

In the myth of Daedalus, Daedalus and his son Icarus are held captive on the island of Crete. To escape, Daedalus builds wings, and together they fly across the Mediterranean.

Overcome with the beauty of flight, Icarus flies too close to the sun, melting the wax that holds his wings together and plunging into the sea. Daedalus, on the other hand, maintains steady progress and reaches Sicily and freedom.

Kanellopoulos' historic 1988 flight

Powered by a 3m propeller and weighing just 31kg, the Daedalus - an elegant aircraft with an impressive 34m wingspan - required extreme fitness to fly, as the propeller was turned by leg-power alone. Kanellopoulos was one of five top-level cyclists who were part of the MIT team and was "on shift" when the perfect weather needed for the flight appeared.  

Wearing nothing but cycling shorts (into which he had cut holes to reduce weight), he pedalled Daedalus 88 over the brilliant blue of the Aegean using a specially-created energy drink as "fuel".

Pedalling the delicate craft just a few metres above the support vessels in the ocean, after 2h49mins, Daedalus 88 broke the previous world record set by the Gossamer Albatross in 1979.

Buoyed by this achievement, Kanellopoulos continued well for an incredible 3 hours and 54 minutes and was just metres from the sandy beach when a strong headwind rose and the gust snapped the tail and wing causing Daedalus to fall into the water. Able to swim safely to shore, Kanellopoulos was greeted by the news that the two records had been well and truly broken: a myth turned into reality.

A plaque commemorating the record-breaking flight was unveiled on Friday 10 June 2016 on the Greek Air Force base in Heraklion, on the northern coast of Crete, marking the spot where the aircraft took off on its record-breaking journey.

Video Documentary

Record files

Straight distance


Photo: Courtesy of John Langford