News your connection to The Boston Globe

Paul MacCready, 81; built 1st human-powered aircraft

Aircraft pioneer Paul MacCready demonstrating his one-gram ornithopter. Dr. MacCready's Gossamer Condor hangs at the Smithsonian Institution. Aircraft pioneer Paul MacCready demonstrating his one-gram ornithopter. Dr. MacCready's Gossamer Condor hangs at the Smithsonian Institution. (1999 file/ap)

LOS ANGELES - Paul B. MacCready - who created the Gossamer Condor, the first successful human-powered airplane - died in his sleep at his Pasadena home Tuesday. He was 81.

AeroVironment Inc., the company he founded, said he had recently been diagnosed with a serious ailment, but the cause of death was not announced.

An accomplished meteorologist, a world-class glider pilot, and a respected aeronautical engineer trained at California Institute of Technology, Dr. 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, which 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.

There were those who denigrated his 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," Dr. 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 in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Next to it is Dr. MacCready's Gossamer Condor.

His foray into aviation history began as the result of a bad loan.

In 1970, Dr. MacCready guaranteed a loan for a friend who wanted to start a business building fiberglass catamarans. When the business failed, Dr. 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 could build 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," Dr. MacCready said. "Suddenly, human-powered flight seemed important."

To win the prize, he had to come up with an airplane that could take off on its own and fly a figure-eight, 1.15-mile course, clearing 10-foot hurdles at each end.

Dr. MacCready said he studied 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 two-fifths of a horsepower. He knew a well-conditioned athlete could produce about that and perhaps a little more for extended periods.

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 bicycle racer who powered the single propeller by pedaling a drive chain made largely of old bicycle parts.

The bizarre aircraft crashed scores of times during flight tests, but Allen always emerged relatively unscathed. Dr. MacCready observed 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 claimed the Kremer prize, and Dr. MacCready was hailed 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 offered a prize of about $213,000 for the first human-powered flight across the English Channel.

Dr. MacCready immediately set about improving on the Condor. What emerged was the Gossamer Albatross, which he described as a "next-step clone." The biggest difference was the 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 off 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, a trip of about 22 miles.

Kremer called it a "splendid achievement" and handed over the prize money.

Six months later, Dr. 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, Dr. MacCready's Solar Challenger, flew 180 miles from Paris 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, Dr. 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.

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, such as the Helios, an unmanned, solar-powered plane with 14 electric motors and a 200-foot wingspan that climbed to more than 96,000 feet, the highest altitude ever achieved by a propeller-driven aircraft.

Some were small, such as his surveillance planes, the size of a man's hand, that carried tiny TV cameras.

Some didn't work, such as a little plane powered by a hamster.

"Hamsters are lazy," he lamented.

A native of New Haven, Conn., Dr. MacCready leaves his wife, Judy; three sons, Parker, Tyler, and Marshall; and two grandchildren.

More from