Thursday, August 30, 2007

Paul B. MacCready, 81; scientist and inventor of human-powered aircraft and 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. Shown above is Paul MacCready in 1979, holding a photograph of the Gossamer Albatross, a human-powered craft that he helped design and build, which won $300,000 in prize money along with a similar craft, the Condor.
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 (shown above) -- two flimsy, awkward-looking planes powered by a furiously pedaling bicycle racer -- that won him international fame and $300,000 in prize money.

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. The spindly, translucent Gossamer Condor 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.

"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.
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Above MacCready displays a model of one of his creations, Helios. The solar-powered plane, with a 200-foot wingspan, shattered the world altitude record in 2001, climbing to 96,863 feet.

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