Top Ten Human-Powered Aircraft
If you’ve ever fallen off a bicycle you’ll know that exactly the worst thing that could possibly happen would be if that bicycle were raised into the sky beforehand. Nonetheless, several hardy souls have decided that the generally earthbound state of “the most civilised conveyance known to man” is a ludicrous hindrance and have pedalled their way to the heavens with hugely differing levels of success: usually briefly and invariably slowly.
10. Gehrhardt Cycleplane
You’ve probably already seen the Gehrhardt Cycleplane, it appears in an oft-repeated montage of newsreel films of various ‘hilarious’ unsuccessful early aircraft which appears in ‘Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines’ and ‘And Now for Something Completely Different’. The seven-winged Cycleplane trundles along for a short distance before collapsing in a heap (ha ha) and the film cuts to the ‘Pitts Sky Car’ (a V-8 powered VTOL machine that succeeds only in bouncing violently on the spot). However if you were to find out that the Gehrhardt Cycleplane was the first human-powered heavier-than-air aircraft to take off under its own power, would it seem so funny then? Well perhaps it would, as it is clearly totally ludicrous. However the Cycleplane really did earn an obscure niche in history by flying, once, on human power alone during 1923.
William Gehrhardt of the Aeronautical school at Michigan University designed the Cycleplane in his spare time while working as an aeronautical engineer at McCook airfield in Dayton, Ohio. The aircraft was built by off-duty members of McCook’s Flight Test Section, initially in secret. Officials from the base’s Engineering Section later allowed the aircraft’s final assembly and storage to take place in a hangar on the field. First flight was achieved in July 1923 when the Cycleplane was towed aloft by a car and demonstrated to be adequately controllable over the course of several towed flights. Eventually a hop of about 20ft was made with the aircraft attaining the lofty altitude of 2 feet. Modest perhaps but this was the first attested flight by a human-powered heavier-than-air aircraft. Unfortunately however this would remain the only powered flight of the Cycleplane, soon after this momentous hop, its undignified collapse was caught on camera and as a result the stake it has claimed in comical history has proved more stubbornly lodged in the collective consciousness than its genuine (small) achievement in aviation history. Which is a shame, (although it is really quite funny).
9. HPA Toucan
If you have never ridden a tandem bicycle, you might be surprised to find out just how much faster they can go than a regular bicycle. A tandem weighs less than two solo bicycles, possesses roughly the same aerodynamic drag and yet boasts literally double the power. There’s a reason tandems have massive brakes. Thus it remains slightly surprising that more ‘twin-engine’ human powered aircraft have not been built. The only example known to have actually flown was the Toucan.
Developed by the Hertfordshire Pedal Aeronauts (who were mostly employees of Handley Page) the Toucan was intended to win the Kremer prize. There were actually a series of Kremer prizes, all sponsored by Latvian-born British industrialist Henry Kremer, but the most prestigious and the one invariably referred to as ‘the’ Kremer Prize was £50,000 to be awarded to the first human-powered aircraft to fly a figure eight around two markers one half mile apart, starting and ending the course at least 10 feet (3.0 m) above the ground. Despite doubling up the motive power, the Toucan failed to grasp the prize, managing a maximum flight length of 640m. Toucan? Tou-couldn’t as it turned out. Nevertheless with its completely transparent fuselage and two (count ’em!) crew, the Toucan wins enough extra points for aesthetics and novelty to justify its inclusion here.
Whether you regard the colossal effort both to build and to fly a human powered aircraft as either a massive waste of time or an incredible and noble endeavour, it is abundantly clear that making such a flying machine work is extremely difficult. Thus it seems the ultimate expression of masochism to make such an endeavour even more difficult by applying a form of propulsion singularly absent from the man-made aviation scene and get your chosen human to power your aircraft by flapping its wings like a bird. Who would take such an obviously self-defeating step?
Enter Canada: Snowbird is the world’s first fairly successful human-powered ornithopter. Fairly successful because it can’t take off under its own power, needing a tow from a car, but then able to maintain powered, controlled flight solely using human-muscle powered flapping wings for a considerable distance. Plus it looks cool. Built by the University of Toronto Institute for Aviation Studies, Snowbird flew for the first time on 31 July 2020 (and for the last time three days later) and many sources claim it to be the world’s first human powered ornithopter. This however is not true, Alexander Lippisch, who is most famous for designing the Messershmitt 163 ‘Komet’ rocket powered interceptor of the Second World War flew a human-powered ornithopter as early as 1929 (which also required a towed launch) but it is unclear whether it could truly sustain flight. Adalbert Schmid built a successful aircraft in Munich powered by flapping wings in 1942 but it had a pair of larger conventional wings ahead of the flapping ones which seems a little like cheating – then he went the whole hog and put a motorcycle engine in it. Frenchman Yves Rousseau’s human-powered ornithopter managed to fly 64 metres in 2006 (also with an initial tow) but horrifically crashed on its next flight, gravely injuring the pilot and rendering him paraplegic. With a flight of 145 metres Snowbird remains to date the most successful muscle powered ornithopter (with the exception of virtually all birds and literally billions of insects).
7. Aerovelo Atlas
Whether you persist in regarding the colossal effort both to build and to fly a human powered aircraft as either a massive waste of time or an incredible and noble endeavour, it is still abundantly clear that making such an aircraft work is extremely difficult. Thus it seems, if anything, even more masochistic to get your chosen human to power a massive helicopter and take off vertically. It took decades of painful development to get a helicopter to work properly with the obvious advantage of a powerful engine, who would be crazy enough to attempt to build a human-powered VTOL machine?
Enter Canada again. The very same University of Toronto team who developed the Snowbird also built the insanely huge quad-rotor Aerovelo Atlas which, with a tip-to-tip rotor span of 154 ft (47 m) is the second largest helicopter ever to fly, after the Mil V-12, though its empty weight of 55 kg (122 lb) makes it one of the world’s lightest helicopters – and a mere 69 tonnes and 45 kg lighter than the aforementioned Mil. It is also the first human-powered helicopter to attain an altitude of 3 metres and stay aloft for 60 seconds. As such it won the Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition and netted $250,000 in prize money. The record breaking 2013 flight represented the culmination of a tight battle with the University of Maryland’s Gamera II human-powered helicopter but the Canadians pipped them at the post thus making up for years of Canadian resentment at suspected US involvement in the cancellation of the Avro Arrow.
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6. Bossi-Bonomi Pedaliante
After the ludicrous self-collapsing Cycleplane, the first serious attempt at a human powered aircraft was the German HV-1 Mufli which was well-designed and flew well but could only take off with catapult assistance. Subsequently Europe’s other major fascist state decided that aviation development could best be advanced by pedal power and offered 100,000 lire for the first human powered aircraft to fly for one kilometre. Enter serial-overachiever Italian-American Enea Bossi who had, amongst other things, designed and constructed the first Italian-built aircraft in 1909 with his pal Guiseppe Bellanca, flown as a bomber pilot in WWI, designed the first aircraft wheel braking system, and licence built the Savoia Marchetti S.56 in New York.
Bossi became interested in the prospect of human-powered flight when he heard of an aircraft that had flown with an engine of less than one horsepower which seemed to imply that human-propelled flight might be possible. Bossi approached the problem with a scientific rigour, conducting experiments with gliders towed by bicycles (similar experiments would take place half a century later in the development of the Gossamer Condor) and eventually came up with the unusually elegant Pedaliante. Equipped with two counter rotating airscrews to cancel out the surprisingly high level of torque found to be generated by such large propellers, Pedaliante took shape in the workshop of glider manufacturer Vittorio Bonomi. Intended to weigh a featherweight (for its time) 73kg, Pedaliante suffered its first major setback when the Ministero dell’Aeronautica mandated that it be built to the same structural strength requirements as an engine-powered aircraft. As a result the completed aircraft weighed a somewhat gargantuan 100kg and the future looked less than rosy for Bossi’s overweight (though exceptionally strong and beautifully well-made) aircraft. Luckily Bossi managed to enlist the help, and more importantly the legs, of Major Emilio Casco of the Italian Army, a cycling enthusiast noted for his enormous strength.
In early 1936 Casco pedalled mightily and managed to haul Pedaliante into the air for a 91 metre flight. This achievement was apparently beyond the ability of a ‘typical person’, whatever that means, but the Pedaliante proved that it could take off and fly by human power alone, even if it required an exceptional human to supply that power. Many later flights were catapulted assisted and Pedaliante managed a flight of over 1 km following a launch to 9 metres. The possibility of what this undoubtedly advanced and well-though-out machine could have achieved had it been built to its original lighter specification remains one of the most tantalising ‘what-ifs’ of human powered flight.
5. SUMPAC (and Puffin)
The first human-powered flight to be officially witnessed and accredited (and filmed for a Pathé news reel just to really hammer the point home) was achieved by SUMPAC (Southampton University Man Powered Aircraft), which had been built by students between 1960 and 1961 to make a bid for the Kremer prize. To pilot the craft, a professional cyclist was to be trained how to fly a glider by the exceptionally talented pilot Derek Piggott. As it turned out, the cyclist turned out to be untrainable and Piggott ended up gamely pedalling SUMPAC into the air, and the history books, himself.
SUMPAC flew around 40 times, achieving a maximum flight distance of 594 metres and making turns up to 80 degrees before a crash in 1963 caused sufficient damage that the decision was made to retire the aircraft. Although it was unable to capture the Kremer prize SUMPAC officially proved that controlled, sustained human powered flight was possible. SUMPAC’s achievement was almost immediately overshadowed somewhat though by the HMPAC Puffin (Hatfield Man Powered Aircraft Club – a group of de Havilland employees), which flew shortly after SUMPAC and set a distance record of 910 metres, a world record that would stand for a decade, but the Kremer prize remained just out of reach.
4. Musculair I and II
The world’s fastest human powered aircraft and the only such aircraft to have taken aloft a human passenger, the unpleasantly named Musculair 1 was developed by German engineer Günther Rochelt in 1984 with the aim of snaring two of the remaining Kremer prizes still up for grabs. Displaying an unusual hiring policy, Rochelt enlisted his own ‘not particularly athletic’ 17 year old son Holger as pilot and remarkably, shortly after the aircraft’s first flight, young Holger achieved the first of the two goals by winning the Kremer prize for the first non-US human powered aircraft to achieve a figure of eight flight over a mile-long course in June 1984. Later the same year he also attained a second Kremer prize for maximum speed by pedalling Musculair 1 to a giddy 35.7 km/h. Holger also took his younger sister Katrina up for a short trip but sadly Kremer had been remiss in sponsoring a prize for the first human powered aircraft to carry siblings.
Sadly, in February 1985 the original Musculair was damaged beyond airworthy repair in a road accident whilst in its trailer. Undeterred, the Rochelts built an improved Musculair II with the aim of exceeding the record set by Musculair 1 and winning a third Kremer prize for the fastest human powered aircraft flight. And yes, the aircraft mixed Roman and Arabic numerals, being named Musculair 1 and Musculair II, thus scaring away any OCD sufferers who might have been interested in the project. The rules stated that to win the prize, the maximum speed had to be raised by at least 5% over the previous best, which was widely believed to be unbeatable.
Nonetheless, Holger Rochelt proved once more how not particularly athletic he was by piloting and propelling Musculair II to the world record speed of 44.26 km/h, nearly 30 mph, in 1985. This was fast enough that the Royal Aeronautical Society, which oversees the awards of the Kremer prizes, decided that a further increase of 5% was impossible and withdrew the speed prize from further attempts. Musculair II thus remains the fastest pedal powered aircraft yet flown and survives to the present day on display in the Deutsches Museum Flugwerft Schleissheim in Oberschleißheim near Munich. Musculair 1 meanwhile is part of the collection of the Deutsches Museum, Munich.
3. Myers Sky-Cycle
One of the earliest human powered aircraft was also by far the most successful commercially and in terms of longevity. A decade before the Wright Brothers used an internal combustion engine (ie cheated) to shove their rickety Flyer into the air, Carl and Mary Myers were gamely pedalling about the heavens with their ‘Sky-Cycle’. However, unlike the secretive Wrights, the Myers demonstrated their aircraft in front of thousands of people, on one spectacular occasion in 1895 they allowed a reporter to pilot the Sky-Cycle across New York City. As a result there is not a hint of doubt that the Myers actually achieved what they claimed but this is largely irrelevant today as the question ‘Who was the first person to successfully fly a pedal-powered airship?’ is one seldom asked: a sorry reflection on the tediously predictable predilections of modern aviation enthusiasts.
The Sky-Cycle started life as a spherical hydrogen balloon to which Mary, a highly experienced balloonist (who made hundreds of demonstration flights as ‘Carlotta, the Lady Aeronaut’), added a rudder and hand driven airscrew to better allow her to navigate air currents, thus creating the first balloon which could be steered and propelled, albeit in a limited fashion. Carl improved this further by elongating the balloon envelope into a more aerodynamic shape and having the airscrew powered, bicycle style, by the pilot’s legs. In this form the aircraft was variously dubbed the ‘Air Bicycle’, ‘Gas Kite’, ‘Aerial Velocipede’, and the ‘Aerial Bicycle’, before ultimately settling on the pleasingly punnish ‘Sky-Cycle’. Test flights of the Sky-Cycle were made from the Myers’ ‘Balloon Farm’ in New York state in 1885 before Carl started to demonstrate the aircraft at various shows and fairs, eventually making hundreds of flights in thirteen states over the course of ten years.
The Sky-Cycle was apparently easy to fly, the pilot simply leaning fore and aft for control in the vertical plane and to either side to make turns. Initially fitted with handlebars controlling a rudder, Myers had discovered these were unnecessary and added hand cranks to supplement the pedals in powering the airscrew. It’s ease of control undoubtedly encouraged Myers’ surprising willingness to let others fly the Sky-Cycle: a reporter named WP Pond flew a Sky-Cycle in formation with Carl pedalling a second machine as early as 1890 (thus achieving the first recorded powered formation flight in history). Pond wrote an excellent account of his adventure in Frank Leslie’s Pictorial Magazine in September of that year concluding “These machines are everything that the inventor claims for them, and will one day in all probability be placed upon the market for sale…The boys of the future have a great treat in store”.
Five years later an anonymous journalist from ‘The New York World’ took an improved Sky-Cycle, now with a cylindrical envelope and fitted with wings for added lift, on its sensational flight over New York city. Starting at the Rockwell Leather Works factory at the corner of Flushing and Classon avenues, Brooklyn, this indomitable reporter flew across the East River, receiving the toots and whistles of steamships on the river in salute, before turning and travelling the length of Manhattan island and crossing the Bronx to land without incident in Yonkers. This was the first dirigible flight over New York and The World delightedly reported of the “First Trial in New York of a Device By Which Man May Really Soar”.
Myers further developed the Sky-Cycle and it became one of vey few human powered aircraft to become a motor driven vehicle when he fitted it with a Curtiss engine. As his balloon and airship business took off (pun intended), Myers effectively abandoned the pilot as powerplant and developed a swathe of advanced airship concepts whilst maintaining his career as a manufacturer of balloons and exhibition balloonist until his retirement in 1909.
2. Daedalus 88
Blessed with the name most likely to be shared with a 1980s animated TV series, Daedalus 88 totally smashed the flight distance record for human-powered aircraft and remains the world record holder, having flown an incredible 115 km from Crete to Santorini in April 1988. A conventional aircraft by the whimsical standards of human-powered flight Daedalus was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Aeronautics and Astronautics Department and two Daedalus aircraft were built. The first, Daedulus 87 was thoroughly tested at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California, eventually suffering a crash caused by insufficient rudder authority but the second, Daedalus 88 was destined for greater things.
Both Daedalus aircraft made great use of carbon fibre and kevlar in their airframes for lightness and strength though much of the structure consisted of the somewhat less exotic expanded polystyrene, the whole lot being covered with Mylar film. Despite possessing a wingspan of over 34 metres, the aircraft weighed a teensy 39kg, that’s less than half the mass of John Travolta (at the time of writing the most famous person with a pilot’s licence for whom I could find a vaguely reliable weight figure).
Like SUMPAC nearly thirty years earlier, Daedalus 88 was intended to be flown by someone proven to be good at cycling. The MIT team sensibly recruited five serious cyclists and taught them how to fly (one was already a qualified glider pilot). Three of them were keen amateur cyclists, one was a former US professional cyclist and the fifth was a former Olympian and fourteen time Greek National road racing champion, Kanellos Kanellopoulos. That the massively more successful Kanellopoulos subsequently flew Daedalus 88 on its momentous journey doesn’t feel entirely surprising but apparently it was merely his turn when conditions became perfect. Hmmm. Anyway, there’s a pleasing symmetry in the fact that a modern Greek flyer should recreate the legendary journey of the second most famous Ancient Greek flyer.
At 7.06am on 23 April 1988, Kanellopoulos, wearing nothing but cycling shorts (into which he had cut holes to save weight), lifted off from an airstrip in Crete. Enjoying a light tail wind and escorted by boats, Daedalus 88 headed out over the Aegean. Every turn and a half of the propeller required a complete turn of the pedals and any slackening of the pace resulted in the aircraft noticeably dipping towards the surface of the sea. After 2 hours and 49 minutes Kanellopoulos and Daedalus broke the previous endurance record for a human powered aircraft. Unlike an earlier human powered Greek pilot, Kanellopoulos did not fly sufficiently close to the sun to melt the aircraft, as he prudently maintained a constant altitude of around 15 metres.
After nearly four hours Kanellopoulos approached the island of Santorini. By this time the sun had sufficiently warmed the black sand of the beach to create an updraft and headwind that was beyond the power of Kanellopoulos’s fatigued legs to overcome. Turning parallel to the beach to attempt a landing a gust of wind caught the aircraft’s wing, the sudden stress caused first the tail boom to fail with an audible crack, then the wing folded and Daedalus 88 plunged into the sea. The exhausted Kanellopoulos was helped ashore and various crew members jumped into the waves to salvage the broken but triumphant Daedalus. Hal Youngren, the project’s Chief Engineer, was interviewed in the water, grasping one end of the crumpled wing he was salvaging. ‘This is easily the coolest airplane crash I’ve ever seen!’ he exclaimed from the waves.
Kanellos Kanellopoulos had expended the same amount of energy as if he had just run two marathons back to back or, perhaps more relevantly, cycled a conventional bicycle at a constant 37 km/h (23 mph) for six hours. In doing so he and Daedalus 88 had set two world records for human powered aircraft, one for flight distance at 115.11 km and the other for flight duration at 3 hours and 54 minutes. Both still stand 33 years later.
- Gossamer Condor and Gossamer Albatros
What else could it be? Human powered flight had been in the doldrums for a while and a Japanese aircraft called Stork looked likely to nudge the distance record up a bit when Paul MacCready burst onto the scene and took the Kremer prize with the remarkable Gossamer Condor before following it up in fairly short order with a flight across the English channel.
Surprisingly, MacCready came up with the idea of winning the Kremer prize primarily as a money making scheme, because he was $100,000 in debt. In the mid 1970s the exchange rate hovered around $2 to the pound so winning the £50,000 prize would essentially solve his monetary problems in one fell human-powered swoop. Obviously fixating on the prospect of pedalling an aeroplane around a difficult course, a feat no one had achieved before despite the best attempts of several highly professional individuals and organisations, would not necessarily be the best course of action for the average debt-ridden engineer but MacCready was far from being an average debt-ridden engineer. Trained as a naval aviator at the tail end of the Second World War, MacCready was a three time national glider champion who gained his PhD in aeronautics in 1953. He invented a device that informed the pilot of the best speed to fly a glider, depending on conditions and based on the glider’s sink rate at different speeds. Glider pilots still use the “MacCready ring” (no sniggering at the back) and adjust the “MacCready Number”, to optimise their flying speed.
Inspired by their knowledge and experience of hang glider design, Macready and his associate Peter B. S. Lissaman built the Gossamer Condor with an unusually low aspect ratio wing compared to previous human powered aircraft, though still a very high aspect ratio wing in conventional terms. After a short flight with a proof-of-concept vehicle, the Gossamer Condor in its initial form, lacking the enclosed cockpit and some other features, was first flown by MacCready’s son on 26 December 1976 at Mojave airport.
With nacelle fitted and the design tweaked to its final configuration, the Gossamer Condor was ready for an attempt on the Kremer Prize by mid 1977. For pilot MacCready had enlisted Bryan Allen, an amateur cyclist and self-taught hang glider pilot who thus combined the two most important requirements for a Human powered aeronaut: good low speed piloting experience and proven leg power. On 23 August 1977 at Minter Field in Shafter, California, observed by the Royal Aeronautical Society, Allen piloted (and powered) the Gossamer Condor off the ground, over a 10ft height marker before flying (slowly) a mile long figure of eight before clearing the same height marker and descending to a safe landing. The Kremer prize was won, MacCready was £50,000 richer and the Gossamer Condor had booked its display space at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Everyone was delighted.
But MacCready was still in debt. The costs required to develop and build the Gossamer Condor had been substantial and MacCready had only managed to knock off around a third of what he owed. Then, as if by magic, the munificence of Henry Kremer smiled on MacCready once more: a new prize was offered for the first human powered aircraft to cross the English Channel. And this time the money was doubled to £100,000 which would easily cover MacCready’s remaining liability and more. The aircraft that MacCready produced was essentially an improved version of the Gossamer Condor, with a higher aspect wing of slightly greater span and the pilot now seated atop a saddle in a more conventional fashion than the recumbent set up of Gossamer Condor. Named the Gossamer Albatross, the pilot was once again to be Bryan Allen but this time the distance required to remain aloft was daunting: the Channel flight would require the aircraft to traverse 22 miles of open sea. The attempt was made on a dead calm 12 June 1979, Allen took off (slowly) slightly before 6 am from Folkestone and headed eastwards out to sea. Things began to go badly, the weather deteriorated and Allen had to battle headwinds as he edged towards France. The crossing was estimated beforehand at two hours and Allen was provided with a two hour water supply. But two hours in and Allen was dehydrated, suffering cramps, the water had run out and the French coast was still not in sight.
Allen signalled to the escorting boats that he was going to give up and climbed slightly so that he could drop a line and be taken in tow. However, this minor change of altitude revealed calmer conditions at this slightly higher altitude so Allen decided instead to press on. 49 minutes later, after sometimes dropping within centimetres of the surface and at times able to pedal with just one leg, Allen and the Gossamer Condor triumphantly crossed the shoreline at Cap Gris-Nez and landed (slowly) on the beach.
MacCready’s money woes were erased and pleasingly he ploughed the prize money back into his company Aerovironment which went from strength to strength, developing solar propulsion technology that culminated in the remarkable Helios UAV (via, amongst others, the Gossamer Penguin, the world’s first solar powered aircraft, the Solar Challenger which flew 262km from just north of Paris to Manston airfield in Kent, and the amazing Sunraycer solar car that won the first Solar road race from Darwin to Adelaide). MacCready won a slew of engineering and environmental awards and honours. Today Aerovironment is the primary supplier of small drones to the Pentagon and valued at $508 million. None of this would have been possible without the Gossamer Condor and Albatross, proving that in this case at least, developing a human powered aircraft was not just the whim of an eccentric engineer chasing an amusing but pointless dream. As well as directly financing the company, the extreme lightweight structural technology utilised in the Gossamer Condor and Albatross directly informed the solar powered aircraft that would cement MacCready and Aerovironment’s reputation. A fitting legacy to a pair of spectacular, delicate, and very slow aircraft.
But there’s more! If you want to see some of these aircraft in action here are some useful links:
- The Gehrhardt cycleplane collapses
- Pedaliante maintains altitude after a cable launch
- SUMPAC flies for Pathe news
- Daedalus II crashes into the sea, the rest of this documentary is worth watching too
- 50 minute long, Emmy award winning 1979 documentary on the Gossamer Albatross (totally worth it if you have time)
- 1978 documentary on the Gossamer Condor
- Prize-winning flight of the Aerovelo Atlas
- The surprisingly elegant Snowbird ornithopter
- Poor quality but quite exciting film of Musculair II flying the figure of eight Kremer course demonstrating high speed and remarkable manoeuvrability for a human powered aircraft, with German commentary
Enjoy, fellow potential aircraft powerplants!
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