Paul B. MacCready, 81; inventor of human-powered aircraft, other innovations
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.
MacCready immediately began improving the Condor. What emerged was the Gossamer Albatross, which he described as a “next-step clone.” The biggest difference was its stronger, lighter frame, made of carbon fiber tubing instead of aluminum.
On June 12, 1979, with Allen at the pedals, the Albatross took off from Folkestone, England, and headed east. Fighting head winds and turbulence for the better part of three hours, Allen overcame cramps and exhaustion to land successfully on the beach at Cap Gris-Nez, France.
Kremer called it a “splendid achievement” and handed over the prize money.
Six months later, MacCready’s ultralight Gossamer Penguin, powered by a 2.75-horsepower motor that ran on electricity generated by solar panels atop the fuselage, skimmed over the Arizona desert in the first climbing flight powered by sunlight.
In 1981, a similar plane, MacCready’s Solar Challenger, flew 180 miles from Paris, France, to Kent, England. A few years later, another of his human-powered aircraft, the Bionic Bat, won two more Kremer prizes.
In one of his greatest flights of fancy, MacCready then enlisted the help of engineer Henry Jax to create and fly a wing-flapping, radio-controlled, half-scale replica of a pterodactyl, a creature with a 36-foot wingspan that last soared over Mesozoic landscapes more than 60 million years ago.
“If you can make something that moves around but gives you the feeling of a prehistoric creature, then people experience it; they feel it much better,” MacCready said in a magazine interview.
In 1987, his GM Sunraycer, a streamlined vehicle the size of a soapbox derby entry, easily won a 1,867-mile race in Australia against other, larger, solar-powered cars.
Some of his later creations were big, like the Helios, an unmanned, solar-powered plane with 14 electric motors and a 200-foot wingspan that climbed to more than 96,000 feet. It was the highest altitude ever achieved by a propeller-driven aircraft.
Some were small, like his surveillance planes, the size of a man’s hand, that carried tiny television cameras.
Some didn’t work, like a little plane powered by a hamster.
“Hamsters are lazy,” he lamented.
The son of a prosperous physician, Paul Beattie MacCready was born in New Haven, Conn., on Sept. 29, 1925.
By the time he was 14, he had designed and built a number of unconventional model planes, including an autogyro that flew for more than 12 minutes, outlasting the best efforts of adults entered in the same competition. Two years later, he tried his hand in real airplanes, earning a pilot’s license.
He entered Yale in 1943, at the same time signing up for training as a Navy pilot. His studies were interrupted occasionally by flight training, but World War II ended before he graduated; he never saw combat.
In 1947, MacCready bought an Army surplus glider and, combining his Navy flight skills with his Yale training in meteorology, he soon became an expert glider pilot. He invented a system that is still used to calculate optimum flight speeds between thermal air currents.
A year later, MacCready earned a master’s degree in physics at Caltech and won the first of three national soaring championships.
In 1951, he founded Meteorology Research Inc., which quickly became a leader in weather modification technology and the manufacture of remote-controlled aircraft for atmospheric research.
MacCready received a doctorate in aeronautics from Caltech in 1952, and in 1956, he became the first American to win the World Champion Soaring Contest.
Several years later, he founded AeroVironment, which produces electronic systems, surveillance aircraft and experimental, energy-efficient cars and boats. The firm also builds systems to monitor and reduce air pollution and hazardous waste.
MacCready often stressed the importance of independent thought.
“You will find that your teachers are sometimes wrong,” he told a group of Santa Monica schoolchildren in 1998.
“Your parents will be wrong. Your schools will be wrong. If you look for the answers yourself, you will find that you can do better.”
Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann, a close friend, attributed MacCready’s creativity to his outlook.
“He approaches nature and daily life with an innocent sense of wonder,” Gell-Mann told Time magazine in 1990.
“He approaches problems and learning about new things in the same way: without strongly held, preconceived notions. When he sees something, he takes a fresh view of it.”
MacCready is survived by his wife, Judy; three sons, Parker, Tyler and Marshall; and two grandchildren.
Plans for a private memorial service are pending.