'Father of Human-Powered Flight' Dies Paul MacCready Jr., known as the "father of human-powered flight," for designing the first aircraft to make a sustained, controlled flight powered solely by a human, has died. He was 81. Bryan Allen, a pilot for MacCready's aircraft, talks with Melissa Block.
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'Father of Human-Powered Flight' Dies

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'Father of Human-Powered Flight' Dies

'Father of Human-Powered Flight' Dies

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Paul MacCready invented flying machines and gave them wonderful names - the Gossamer Condor, the Bionic Bat. MacCready died on Tuesday. He was 81. He was an aeronautical engineer, also a pilot - he got his license when he was 16 - and he was a soaring champion on glider planes. MacCready made aviation history in 1977 when he created the first successful human-powered airplane. That was the Gossamer Condor, made out of aluminum tubing, cardboard, Mylar and piano wire. It weighed just 55 pounds, took seven minutes to go about a mile, and it was powered by a furiously pedaling pilot. The pilot was Bryan Allen.

Mr. BRYAN ALLEN (Pilot, Gossamer Condor): Just imagine a hundred-foot wingspan with very large swept wings. It's covered with a clear material that looks just kind of like Saran Wrap. It has a whole maze of very thin, very small wires. And because of all these bracing wires, it's all pretty tall, too. So the whole thing stands a couple of stories high. It was like 18 feet high and 30 feet long, and about a hundred foot wingspan.

BLOCK: Well, the name of the plane gives it away, I guess, but I've read that Paul MacCready got the idea, the thinking behind how he would design this by watching birds in flight.

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah. MacCready had a very extensive background in aeronautics and aviation and soaring and stuff like that, and had also been one of the real pioneers of the development of hang gliding in early '70s. And so, kind of combining all those with his knowledge of birds and his knowledge of theory, he was able to come to an understanding about how to build a human-powered airplane that, apparently, other people had not - it was not obvious to other people.

BLOCK: After that historic prize-winning flight in 1977, two years later, you're back in a new version - the Gossamer Albatross. Trying to get across the English Channel, 22 miles.

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah. And both the Condor and the Albatross were driven by the presence of prizes that were put up by an English industrialist named Henry Kremer. When we won the first Kremer prize in 1977, then almost immediately, another prize has put up for flying from England to France. And I think the expectation of just about everybody around the world was that it was going to take another 20 or 30 years to win that one. The reality, though, was that we just had to make a cleaner, more high-tech version of the Gossamer Condor and then instead of only being able to fly for a mile, it would be able to fly for distances of 20 or 30 miles.

BLOCK: That doesn't sound self-evident. I mean, that's a huge, that's a huge difference.

Mr. ALLEN: It's not self-evident, and that was part of MacCready's genius, was that he was able to see quite complicated things, but kind of pare them down to their essence. And most people, including myself, typically get kind of wound up in the details, and he was one of those people that could be very detail-oriented, but yet at the same time very much see the big picture and strip it down to its essence.

BLOCK: I've seen a picture of you on this flight over the English Channel and you are barely off the water. You look like you're practically skimming the surface.

Mr. ALLEN: There's an advantage in flying close to the water. You take a little less power - and this is something that a lot of sea birds will do - is actually fly very close to the water in which you call ground effect. So there's an advantage there but there's also a disadvantage on the pilot's point of view. You have to be really on top of the plane all the time.

BLOCK: Did Paul MacCready's planes - did they change aviation in some way?

Mr. ALLEN: I think they have and I think they will continue to have a pretty powerful effect on aviation. One of the crafts that Doctor MacCready's company, AeroVironment, built as a kind of a follow-on was a solar-powered airplane called the Solar Challenger, which was a completely solar-powered airplane. And spin-offs from that then actually led to a plane that just a few years ago - a plane called Helios, which was a nonmanned airplane that flew up to very near to 100,000 feet. That's actually the highest that any fixed wing aircraft has ever sustained flight.

So, a lot of the things that Paul did are, I think, pointing towards a future of sustainability and pointing towards a future of doing more with less. That was kind of a slogan of his - was to figure out how you can actually do what you want to do, but yet at the same time, do it with a lot less - either resource utilization or a lot less power.

BLOCK: Bryan Allen, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. ALLEN: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Bryan Allen is a software engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He was remembering the inventor Paul MacCready, known as the father of human powered flight. MacCready died on Tuesday at age 81.



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