Anyone who happened to be on the English Channel on the morning of June 12, 1979, must have done a double take. Moving slowly through the air, just a few feet above the choppy waters, was one of the oddest looking flying machines ever built. Almost 100 feet wide and sheathed in a shiny, semitransparent skin, the craft, called the Gossamer Albatross, had a big propeller at its back but no engine to speak of. Instead, in an enclosed pod hanging beneath that huge wing, was Bryan Allen, a bicycle racer, furiously pedaling to make the impossible craft go. After almost three hours of physical effort, and flying more than 22 miles, Allen gently landed the plane on the beaches of England. The Albatross's inventor, Paul MacCready, who had been in a boat following the slow, tense journey from the shores of France, rushed to join the celebration.
Although he didn't begin building a human-powered airplane until he was 51 years old, Paul MacCready had been involved with flight for most of his life. As a boy growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, he was fascinated with butterflies and moths, and his interests soon included model airplanes, too. MacCready didn't just build standard aircraft. "For some reason I got interested in a variety of things," he says. "Ornithopters, autogyros, helicopters, indoor models, outdoor models. Nobody seemed to be quite as motivated for the new and strange as I was."
During World War II MacCready trained to be a Navy pilot, though he never flew in combat. After the war, he returned to his education, though, he recognizes now, he struggled with a mild form of dyslexia. In 1947 he earned a degree in physics at Yale, then went on to receive his Ph.D. in aeronautics from the California Institute of Technology in 1952. After CalTech he cofounded Meteorology Research, a company that pioneered weather modification, including cloud seeding. In 1970 he left to start another company, AeroVironment, to focus on new energy sources such as solar and wind power.
A Bad Debt Inspires the Condor
It was bad news that started MacCready working on human-powered flight. He had guaranteed a loan for a relative's business. It failed, and he was stuck with a $100,000 debt. Daydreaming one day in 1976, he recalled that there was a cash prize for a successful human-powered flight: the Kremer Prize, with an award of £50,000. He remembers, "the Kremer Prize, in which I'd had no interest, was just about equal to my debt. Suddenly human-powered flight seemed important."
MacCready began thinking of ways to build a plane that could win the prize, which required flying around a figure-eight course. (Other human-powered planes had flown, but they couldn't make turns.) The Aha! moment, as he calls it, came on a family vacation. On the side of the road, MacCready watched hawks and vultures in flight, calculating their flight speed and turning radius. He began thinking about how scalingmaking something bigger or smalleraffects a wing's aerodynamic lift. He realized that as you made a wing bigger, it required less power to keep it aloft. If you made it a lot bigger, it required a lot less power. A very light, 96-foot-long wing (as big as a DC-9's) built like a hang glider's would only require about .4 horsepower to make it flyabout the power a good bicyclist can produce.
It took six months of sometimes nonstop work for MacCready and his team, made up of friends, colleagues, and family, to build the Gossamer Condor. They used simple materials that were light and could be fixed easily, including Mylar, piano wire, aluminum tubing, and lots of tape. When it was finished, the Condor weighed just 70 pounds, didn't look much like a plane, and didn't always act like one. (Bryan Allen, the pilot/engine, said flying it was "like pedaling a house.") On August 23, 1977, with Allen at the pedals, the Condor flew the Kremer course. Today, the Gossamer Condor hangs in the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, alongside the Wright Brothers' plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, and an Apollo Lander.
Crossing the English Channel
There was another prize to be won: the Kremer Prize's sponsor put up £100,000 for the first human-powered aircraft to cross the English Channel. With sponsorship from DuPont, which made his planes' Mylar skin, MacCready set about building a second plane, the Gossamer Albatross. Two years later the Albatross crossed the Channel.
From human power MacCready moved on to another challenge, harnessing the sun's energy. Building on the design and success of the first Gossamer planes, he built the Gossamer Penguin, which in 1980 became the world's first solar-powered airplane. The craft caught the eye of the Department of Defense, which wanted something that could stay up in the air for long periods of time. Eventually, the project was taken up by NASA, which was interested in creating an airborne platform for atmospheric observations. The unmanned Pathfinder soared to a height of 71,530 feet in 1997; its successor, the Pathfinder Plus, reached 80,201 feet in 1998. The next step in this evolution is the 200-foot-wide Helios, which might reach 100,000 feet and stay aloft for months at a time. MacCready envisions a fleet of these craft in the air permanently, serving as a high-performance communications platform.
For the past few years, MacCready has been working on small aircraft with built-in cameras to send images back to the ground. "You are looking out as if you were a little creature inside," he explains. "You can soar with the birds. It's just like you're one of them." This new vehicle fits in perfectly with MacCready's interest in finding a balance between nature and technology. "The overall goal is a sustainable world," he says. "Not consuming nonreplenishable resources, not getting steadily more dependent on foreign oil, and not causing global climate change." How can a toy-like plane that lets you fly with birds help reach those goals? "If I hadn't been doing the ornithopters 60 years ago there wouldn't have been a Gossamer Condor or Albatross or Impact car or a mandate in California on zero emission vehicles. It's a toy, but it's a pretty important toy."