For thousands of years, human beings have watched birds soar through the skies and dreamed of one day flying in a similar fashion, using their own power. Inventor Paul MacCready brought that dream to life in 1977 when he created the world’s first human-powered aircraft, the Gossamer Condor.
MacCready was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1925. As a youngster, he was very interested in airplanes, and he learned to fly solo by age 16. In World War II, he flew in the U.S. Navy flight training program. He attended Yale University, receiving a BS in physics in 1947, and in 1948, 1949, and 1953, he won the U.S. National Soaring Championship, a gliding competition. He became the International Soaring Champion in France in 1956, the first American to achieve this goal.
MacCready received a master’s degree in physics in 1948 and a PhD in aeronautics in 1952, both from the California Institute of Technology. During those years, he worked on projects ranging from sailplane development to soaring techniques to meterology, and he designed the Speed Ring Airspeed Selector, which is used by glider pilots all over the world to select the optimum flight speed between thermals. The device is commonly known as the “MacCready Speedy.” He also founded Meteorology Research Inc. for atmospheric science and weather modification research.
In 1971, MacCready formed his second company, AeroVironment, to focus on new energy sources, such as solar and wind power. The organization has since become well-known and respected for product and technology innovation in clean energy and efficient vehicles. In the mid-1970s, MacCready was inspired by his theoretical knowledge of the soaring patterns of birds to conquer a very practical challenge. In 1959, the British industrialist Henry Kremer had offered a prize of £50,000 for the first substantial flight of a human-powered airplane. In 1977, MacCready’s Gossamer Condor made the first sustained, controlled flight by a heavier-than-air craft powered solely by its pilot's muscles. For this feat, he received the $95,000 Henry Kremer Prize.
Two years later, MacCready’s AeroVironment team, with DuPont sponsorship, created the Gossamer Albatross, another 70-pound craft with a 96-foot wingspan. This time, they hoped to meet the Kremer prize committee’s challenge for the first human-powered flight across the English Channel. That flight, made by "pilot-engine" and bicycle racer Bryan Allen, took almost three hours and covered more than 20 miles. It won the new Kremer prize of $213,000, which was, at the time, the largest cash prize in aviation history.
In the early 1980s, MacCready led AeroVironment to create two more aircraft, the Gossamer Penguin and the Solar Challenger, which were both powered by the sun. These machines were meant to draw the world's attention to photovoltaic cells as a renewable and non-polluting energy source. Eventually, the project was taken up by NASA, which soon produced the unmanned Pathfinder. The next step in this evolution is the 200-foot-wide Helios, which could reach 100,000 feet and stay aloft for months at a time. One of Helios’ most significant potential purposes is to serve as an 11-mile-high "SkyTower"™ that relays multichannel wide bandwidth communications.
Additionally, in 1983, MacCready’s team built the 70-pound, human-powered Bionic Bat, which had on-board battery storage. In 1984, the team developed a radio-controlled, flying replica of a pterodactyl, the largest animal that ever flew. This replica appeared in a 1986 wide-screen IMAX film titled "On the Wing." Other widely publicized aircraft that resulted from MacCready’s work include tiny (6" span) surveillance drones and microplanes with on-board video cameras, some weighing less than two ounces. In 1986, MacCready and his team developed their first land vehicle, the solar-powered GM Sunraycer, which, in 1987, won the World Solar Challenge, a 1,867 mile race across Australia, averaging 41.6 mph. The same group then created the GM Impact, a high performance battery-powered car now being put into mass production.
Over the course of his career, MacCready earned a dozen patents, five honorary degrees, and wrote or co-authored hundreds of reports and papers. He was honored with numerous awards, including the Collier Trophy from the National Aeronautics Association, the Reed Aeronational Award, the Franklin Institute’s Edward Longstreth Medal, the Lindbergh Award, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Distinguished Service Award, the Guggenheim Medal, the Chrysler “Innovation in Design” Award, and a 2002 Innovation Award from Discover magazine. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering and American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has Fellow status in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the American Meteorological Society, and the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
MacCready died on August 28, 2007.