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Paul MacCready

Human-powered flying machines

It was not until August of 1977 that a flying machine powered solely by a person made a significant flight. That machine was the Gossamer Condor, conceived, designed and built by Paul MacCready.

MacCready went from building model airplanes as a child to earning a Ph.D. in aeronautics from the California Institute of Technology in 1952. In the mid-70s, MacCready was inspired by his theoretical knowledge of the soaring patterns of birds to conquer a very practical challenge: in 1959, the British industrialist Henry Kremer had offered a prize of £50,000 for the first substantial flight of a human-powered airplane.

MacCready used balsa wood, cardboard, Mylar plastic, and piano wire to construct a plane which had a 96-foot wingspan but weighed only 70 pounds. It was powered by a single pedal-driven propellor, and was steered by twisting the wing-tips. In 1977, MacCready's Gossamer Condor made history by flying the 1-mile long, figure-8 route required by the Kremer prize, at about 10 feet of altitude and a speed of 10 miles per hour.

The next year, Paul MacCready's similar Gossamer Albatross flew across the English Channel. In 1980, his solar-powered airplane---the world's first---flew to England from Paris. More recently, MacCready, whose interest in ecology matches his interest in technology, has led the team that developed the solar-powered "Impact" car for General Motors. Meanwhile, the Gossamer Condor has earned a place of honor next to the Wright Brothers' plane in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

[March 1996]

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