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Paul B. MacCready, 81; inventor of human-powered aircraft, other innovations

August 30, 2007|Eric Malnic | Special to The Times

Paul B. MacCready, the Caltech-trained scientist and inventor who created the Gossamer Condor -- the first successful human-powered airplane -- as well as other innovative aircraft, has died. He was 81.

MacCready died in his sleep at his Pasadena home Tuesday, according to an announcement from AeroVironment Inc., the Monrovia-based company he founded. The statement said he had been recently diagnosed with a serious ailment but the cause of death was not listed.

An accomplished meteorologist, a world-class glider pilot and a respected aeronautical engineer, MacCready headed the team that designed and built the Gossamer Condor and the Gossamer Albatross -- two flimsy, awkward-looking planes powered by a furiously pedaling bicycle racer -- that won him international fame and $300,000 in prize money.

He also built and flew a radio-controlled replica of a prehistoric pterodactyl, the largest creature that ever took to the air.

His successes in these and other imaginative projects led to more than 30 prestigious awards, including the Collier Trophy for achievement in aeronautics and astronautics, and five honorary degrees.

The slight, pale, bespectacled MacCready said it all probably stemmed from a rather nerdy childhood.

"I was always the smallest kid in the class," he told the National Aviation Hall of Fame. "I was not especially coordinated -- certainly not the athletic type -- and socially immature.

"And so, when I began getting into model airplanes, and getting into contests and creating new things, I probably got more psychological benefit from that than I would have from some of the other typical school things," he said. "Nobody seemed to be quite as motivated for the new and strange as I was."

There were those who denigrated MacCready's efforts, saying they had no practical value. He said his critics missed the point.

"Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic did not directly advance airplane design," MacCready said. "The plane was a lousy plane. It was unstable and you couldn't see forward very well. You wouldn't want to design another like it. But it changed the world by being a catalyst for thinking about aviation."

Lindbergh's plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, hangs today from a ceiling at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Hanging next to it is MacCready's Gossamer Condor.

MacCready's foray into aviation history began as the result of a bad loan.

In 1970, MacCready guaranteed a loan for a friend who wanted to start a business building fiberglass catamarans. When the company failed, MacCready found himself $100,000 in debt.

Casting around for a way to deal with that problem, he recalled a cash prize offered by British industrialist Henry Kremer to anyone who built a human-powered plane capable of sustained, controlled flight.

"The Kremer prize, in which I'd had no interest, was just about equal to my debt," MacCready said. "Suddenly, human-powered flight seemed important."

To win the prize, he had to create an airplane that could take off on its own and fly a figure-eight, 1.15-mile course, clearing 10-foot hurdles at the beginning and end. Several people had tried; all had failed.

MacCready said he studied the soaring flights of hawks and vultures, calculating the amount of lift needed to keep the birds aloft and comparing that with what he knew about gliders.

He concluded that if he could triple the wingspan of a glider without increasing its weight, the power needed to keep it aloft in level flight would be only about four-tenths of one horsepower. He knew that a well-conditioned athlete could produce about that, and maybe a little more, for an extended period.

The spindly, translucent Gossamer Condor that resulted was crafted of aluminum tubing, plastic sheeting, piano wire and Scotch tape. It had a wingspan of 90 feet but weighed only 70 pounds. The pilot was Bryan Allen, a strong, slender bicycle racer who powered the single propeller by pedaling a drive chain made largely of old bicycle parts.

The Condor flew from the outset, but not well. However, because it flew so slowly and at such a low height -- about 10 mph and about 15 feet -- MacCready was able to improve its design through trial and error.

The bizarre aircraft crashed scores of times during flight tests, but Allen always emerged relatively unscathed. MacCready noted dryly that his crash-and-rebuild system worked all right for the Condor, "but it is not the way to develop airliners."

Finally, on Aug. 23, 1977, the Condor made a successful seven-minute flight over a figure-eight course laid out around the airport in the dusty San Joaquin Valley farming town of Shafter. MacCready claimed the Kremer prize and was celebrated as the father of human-powered flight.

"We're at last achieving a goal that man has had for thousands of years," he said.

Within months, Kremer had offered a prize of about $213,000 for the first human-powered flight across the English Channel.

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