A team of engineering students from the University of Toronto have accomplished a lofty historic first that has eluded the aerospace industry for the past 33 years: one minute of self-powered helicopter flight.

The Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition, first established in 1980, has remained a virtual Holy Grail for aerospace engineers -- until now. And without a winner, the $250,000 prize has sat unclaimed.

But with "Atlas," the Toronto team’s pedal-powered carbon-fibre chopper which weighs just 100 pounds, the team became the first to achieve the goal, beating out tough competition from the University of Maryland and NTS Works in California, who were also striving for the prize.

  • Scroll down to watch video of the successful flight

"This is a monumental challenge, this prize. This was a challenge that was set up 33 years ago and until last year really nobody had come close," said Todd Reichert, one of the lead engineers on the project, along with his colleague Cameron Robertson.

Their successful flight took place on June 13, and after rigorous analysis of the flight data, the team was officially awarded the prize Thursday.

According to the rules of the contest, a human-powered helicopter must remain in the air for at least one minute, at a height of at least three metres, and must stay within a 10-metre square box in what is essentially a "hover" position.

Reichert and Robertson -- and their team of roughly 50 people known as AeroVelo -- managed to keep Atlas in the air for 64.11 seconds, reached a peak altitude of 3.3 metres and drifted no more than 9.8 metres, meeting all the requirements of the contest.

"We basically worked together on this and were able to apply creative and innovative engineering solutions to all aspects of this problem: from the sheer size of the helicopter, which was a substantial advantage, to the novel aerodynamic and structural design which was critical to putting together the perfect aircraft for this," Robertson said.

The project has been underway for the better part of the past 1.5 years. While the helicopter itself was designed and built in just three-and-a-half months in a barn north of Toronto, the flight testing phase took nine months of careful tinkering, countless small adjustments, and lots of heartbreak.

"We'd make small steps forward and then some steps back. There have been a lot of crashes, a lot of broken rotors and there have been two full crashes from altitude, from three metres up, where we destroyed much of the helicopter. And it takes a lot to refocus and continue pushing forward, this is perseverance on a whole different level," Reichert said.

In a blog announcing the win on Thursday, Robertson said the months of work and technical adjustments paid off when it came time to make a bid for the Sikorsky prize.

"The Atlas, as flown on June 13th, behaved very differently from the aircraft we first flew some nine months ago, a result of many incremental improvements and changes,” he wrote.

“In 18 months, this passionate team went from preliminary design to achieving what many considered impossible, taking down one of the most daunting aviation feats of the past century."

The team plans to spend some of the winnings on paying off the substantial debt incurred during the project, then to move forward with their next projects -- bicycles capable of travelling up to 120 km/h on nothing more than pedal power.

They also plan to use some of their winnings to set up summer project teams in years ahead, where engineering students come together to solve major challenges over the course of a few months.

Atlas isn't the first historic accomplishment for the AeroVelo team. In 2010 they created the world's first human-powered ornithopter, or wing-flapping flying machine.