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Paul MacCready, Human-Powered Flying Machine Inventor
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A vulture in flight

A vulture in flight

More Photography:

A man flying a hang glider
A man flying a hang glider

The Gossamer Condor in flight
The Gossamer Condor in flight

The Gossamer Condor a few feet off the ground
The Gossamer Condor a few feet off the ground

The Work of Paul MacCready

“I was on vacation, and I realized you could figure out the flight speed and the turning radius of birds soaring in circles by noting the time it takes to do a turn and estimating the bank angle. [With a little more information you can figure out the lift the bird’s wings are generating.] This got me thinking about how the flight of a hang glider carrying a person compared to the flight of vultures.”

MacCready realized that if he could triple the size of a hang glider without making it heavier, a human could power its flight. And he could win the Kremer Prize.

“[The Gossamer Condor] had to be larger and lighter than any plane that had been made until then. It ended up with a 96-foot wingspan and [weighed] 70 pounds, which is pretty light. Unprecedented in the way people have made airplanes.”

“You didn’t need the structural-safety margin that you need in a regular hang glider. This was only going to fly at 10 feet altitude at 10 miles an hour. If it broke, who cared? Nobody would get hurt. You could have it on the very edge of breaking.”

“With the basic idea of large and light, the problem was solved. There would be a bunch of grunt work, engineering, to actually win the prize, but the idea that assured that the prize could be won was in my possession.”

In fact, it took more than 400 test flights, hundreds of crashes, 35 major redesigns, and thousands of small adjustments before MacCready’s Gossamer Condor claimed the Kremer Prize.

In 1979 MacCready’s similar Gossamer Albatross flew across the English Channel to win the new Kremer Prize of $213,000. With his Aerovironment team he also designed award-winning solar-powered airplanes and the GM Sunraycer car.

Next: Roman Szpur, High-Efficiency Wind Turbine Inventor ›

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