Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Meet the garden shed aviator

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Barford is part of a small group of amateurs obsessed with man-powered aircraft
  • His BetterFly is 22-meters wide and can take flight under Barford's pedal-power
  • It is the hand-made aspect that most appeals to him

Editor's note: Art of Movement is CNN's monthly show exploring the latest innovations in art, culture, science and technology.

(CNN) -- If you walk past the Barford family garage in Northampton, England on a Sunday afternoon, there's every chance you'll see a 10-meter-long wing sticking out into the driveway, and a dad and his two kids building a peculiar transparent airplane.

"We've got pictures of it being built, where my son... he was probably seven or eight when he's holding the first part that we made," says David Barford, 44. "And then he's 16 and taller than me when he's holding the last parts."

Meet the world's fastest flying woman
Mysterious clockwork boy writes poems
Could this robot help disarm landmines?

"So all through their life, if they want to know where dad was, dad was probably in the garage, building his plane."

A peculiar obsession

Barford is part of a small group possessed by a peculiar obsession.

The plane he's assembling at home has no engine -- none apart from the pilot's cycling power, driving an oversized propeller.

Enthusiasts like Barford -- he mentions John McIntyre in nearby Cambridgeshire and Peer Franck in Germany, and there are a scattering of others across the globe -- dream of flying as the first aeronautical test pilots once did: human-powered. "Pure," as Barford describes it.

He recalls being a seven-year-old, himself, and trying to recreate the man-powered star of the Oscar winning documentary Flight of the Gossamer Condor -- American Dr. Paul B. MacCready's machine which took flight in the Mojave Desert in 1976. In model form, at least.

The ungainly machine was the beginning of his fascination:

"To look at it, it's not elegant. To look at it, it's not beautiful at all. It flies backwards, the elevator is at the front of the wing...," he describes.

Paper airplane -- made real

At a glance, Barford's homemade creation is barely more substantial than the kitchen-cupboard replicas of his youth.

Despite its 22-meter wingspan -- proportional to a small Boeing that you might travel on holiday in, he notes -- his BetterFly weighs little more than 40kg. That's about half Barford's bodyweight.

The Gossamer Albatross, which followed soon after the Condor, flew from England to France in 1979.
The Gossamer Albatross, which followed soon after the Condor, flew from England to France in 1979.

Barford draws on the experience of his day job -- as an engineer on Mercedes-Benz's Formula One engines -- to cut milligrams off weight by drilling out screws and forging hollow carbon tubes for the plane's skeleton.

Beyond that, though, everything is store bought. The handcrafted amateurishness of it all is part of the appeal.

Barford was never interested in shiny new jets, mass produced from precision laser cut parts by teams of professionals -- "That wasn't flying as I wanted to experience flying."

Barford's design, for all the fine attention to detail, is all about making it up yourself, he says. And he is not embarrassed to admit that some fundamental details -- like whereabouts the all important center of gravity is -- "had just been wet finger guessed with a cup of tea in my hand."

Just Right

Preparing to attempt the first flight, Barford gave his plane a "50-50" chance of coming home in a black bin bag. Everything had to be designed "on a knife edge" -- being just robust enough to hold together, while remaining light enough to leave the ground.

Toward the end of construction, he realized the main spar stretching across the back of the wing was coming in heavier than expected. He knew what he'd have to do:

Dr Bill Brooks is a friend of Barford and fellow enthusiast, who helped him get his plane airborne.
Dr Bill Brooks is a friend of Barford and fellow enthusiast, who helped him get his plane airborne.

"It put me on the best diet I have ever had! So I lost 8 kilograms in weight to match the plane!"

He booked a week off work, hoping to return as anything other than the "laughing stock" he assumed he'd be if his decade long quest failed.

Just days before the flight, the Barford family gazed out the window as buckets of rain fell.

"My wife's birthday is May 23rd, so I promised to avoid flying on her birthday. But as the weather happens to have it, the Monday and Tuesday were blowy and windy and wet, and the forecast on her birthday was beautiful.

"So we dropped a few hints...," he smiles.

The original dream of flight

Standing on the runway, that evening, as night fell, he gave himself a moment to admire his creation -- "It was light, it was elegant, it was complete. It was finished." -- before takeoff.

"Pedaling and pedaling away, you can just...it is really beautiful."

"All of a sudden you get to a certain speed and you just rise up. Really smoothly -- no dramatic effort involved."

"You keep going, and it all goes quiet, and you are lifted up -- but you are lifted from your hips and your back so you are just cuddled up into the air," he enthuses.

The first flight was around 50 meters -- "not just a hop," he says. "Proper flying."

"It's quite odd to be in a plane that you are pedaling: you are flying, but you can look down and see people, and you can look into the distance and there are birds flying along beside you."

"The day after our flight... I drove to work and saw a buzzard just hovering. And I thought: 'Yeah -- you and me, mate. I can join you."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Jason Hullinger, a computer security architect in Los Angeles, went to Joshua Tree National Park in December to catch the Geminid meteor shower.
For thousands of years, man has looked to the stars in search of answers. Who are we? Why are we here? Are we alone?
June 29, 2014 -- Updated 1551 GMT (2351 HKT)
NASA's new flying saucer-shaped spacecraft has made its maiden flight.
November 12, 2013 -- Updated 1033 GMT (1833 HKT)
Introducing GimBall -- a flying robot modeled on insects, which may change search and rescue missions forever.
November 20, 2013 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
Flying robot Skycall guides a student around MIT.
MIT has developed a flying robot to guide students around its campus.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1449 GMT (2249 HKT)
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Actually, it's a bit of both. Find out how wingsuits allow fearless fliers to glide through the skies.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
CNN's Becky Anderson looks at how practicing underwater is the perfect way to prepare for spacewalks.
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
This incredible mechanical boy can write poetry and draw pictures. Hear his remarkable story.
March 14, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Quick math question: What has 78 fingers, 22 arms, and no brain? Meet the futuristic robot band that plays fast and furious.
March 19, 2014 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
A robot has smashed the record for solving a Rubik's Cube. Check out some of the nerdiest man vs machine competitions of all time...
March 28, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Inventor Glenn Martin admits he appears crazy -- "But it's the crazy people who change the world."
ADVERTISEMENT