On November 9th 1961, an aircraft powered solely by the physical effort of the pilot completed an unassisted takeoff – for the first time ever. The Southampton University Man Powered Aircraft (SUMPAC) was designed and built by postgraduate students at the university, and completed around 40 flights before being retired to Solent Sky Museum after a crash rendered the aircraft irreparable.
Fifty years after this groundbreaking flight, senior lecturer Dr Alex Forrester would lead a team of engineering undergraduate students at the university with the ambition of re-entering the human powered aircraft (HPA) space. The Southampton University Human Powered Aircraft (SUHPA) would incorporate new technologies and manufacturing methods, however, the project was time and budget constrained and ultimately did not fly.
In 2013, the aircraft was rebuilt with the aim to break the HPA world speed record – with efforts documented as part of the Speed with Guy Martin (2014) TV series. While the speed record was not broken, the aircraft flew successfully. The aircraft would retire to a storeroom as original project members continued to depart the university with the end of their courses.
The SUHPA society was founded in 2017 when curious students at the university discovered the disrepaired remains of both the 2011 and 2013 aircraft. The society’s goal would be two-fold: to build and fly an all-new aircraft, but also to take advantage of the student-society framework to ensure the aircraft would always be maintained and cared for.
In an unfortunate twist, Dr Forrester would depart the university shortly after the society’s inception, leaving it with zero academic supervision. The small team of undergraduate students at SUHPA struggled to progress until the summer of 2019 – when a visit to the British Human Powered Flying Club (BHPFC) Icarus cup and subsequent conversations with HPA enthusiasts would inspire the would-be lead aircraft designer, Charles Dhenin. By October and the start of the academic year, Charles would complete most of SUHPA’s newest entrant, the Lazarus MkI aircraft.
Construction of the Lazarus aircraft began almost immediately, repurposing ex-SUHPA aircraft components such as the carbon fibre drive-train frame and main-wing spar from the 2013 aircraft. While keeping the original carbon skeleton resulted in significant cost-savings, this posed challenges in and of itself – the geometry of the parts were designed for high-speed flight (and very athletic pilots!). To make the aircraft more accessible, many aspects of the Lazarus required complete redesign and manufacture – including the entire main-wing, powertrain, control surfaces, electronics, pilot’s fairing, and new extensions to the main-wing spar. The word was starting to spread, and the society slowly began to grow to around 30 students strong. Invariably as with all in-person activities, the Coronavirus pandemic halted major works for a full year. Despite this setback, the aircraft was eventually readied piecemeal.
On the 14th of June 2021, our brand new Lazarus aircraft made its maiden flight at Lasham airfield. At the time of the 2021 Icarus cup competition, this made SUHPA one of only four actively flying HPAs in the United Kingdom, and the only all-student team.
In the 2021-2022 academic session, lessons learned from the Lazarus would lead to development beginning on the Lazarus MkII, or Super Lazarus. Modifications to the Lazarus aircraft include an all-new fuselage, tail boom extension, and an advanced flight computer. The first flights of Super Lazarus are expected in the summer of 2022.
The SUHPA society operates without assistance from the University of Southampton engineering department – our existence is possible thanks to the kind contributions of our society’s members and supporters, both in- and outside of the university.