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If you like Paul MacCready's story, you might also like:
Ray Kurzweil,
Robert Langer,
Story Musgrave,
Sally Ride,
Alan Shepard,
Donna Shirley
and Chuck Yeager

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Paul MacCready
 
Paul MacCready
Profile of Paul MacCready Biography of Paul MacCready Interview with Paul MacCready Paul MacCready Photo Gallery

Paul MacCready Interview (page: 2 / 5)

Engineer of the Century

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  Paul MacCready

You obviously worked very hard along the way. Do you think luck or happenstance play a fairly large role in what happens to someone in his or her life?

Paul MacCready: If you charge around and do a lot of things, you have more opportunity for luck. If you figure out exactly what you are going to do, and just go doggedly at that for three decades, you are going to miss a lot of boats. The world changes so rapidly now, what is important is evolving so quickly, that I think you better jump into new opportunities and new challenges. You may not do as well economically, but I think it's important.

Important for your own outlook on life?

Paul MacCready Interview Photo
Paul MacCready: For your contribution to the world, but also in keeping you alive. It's very awkward for people who were good students, and went into the aerospace industry because that was the best job offer for the engineer or the aerodynamicist. They get more specialized, they get high salaries with all the military-industrial complex procurement. A person can get narrower and narrower and more specialized, and end up sort of useless for the world, unfortunately. Suddenly there is a big cutback, and this person isn't that useful for anything else. Some of the very best things happen when people are specialists, but there is more virtue in adaptability now, because the world is changing so fast. It is not the simpler world it was 50 years ago.

That certainly argues for maintaining a breadth of interests and a breadth of knowledge.

Paul MacCready Interview Photo
Paul MacCready: Whatever you have been trained in, it's the wrong field for the most exciting, important subjects of 20 years from now. When you go to school, it is great to develop some skills and learn fundamentals that are common to any field you get into. There is a lot of very good training that engineers and scientists get, to deal with reality. They learn to be creative and have to figure out goals and solve problems. Sometimes, when they get into art or history or philosophy at some later time, they bring some talents to those fields that people who go through the ordinary training aren't as good at.

Do you often find that something you learned in an unrelated field takes you in a direction you would never have imagined, had you not stumbled onto it in a search for knowledge?

Paul MacCready: I'm lucky. I've been able to move from one field to another. At the right stage, that can be really exciting. Things are evolving so quickly now, in all fields of science, philosophy, history, everything else, ambling around from one field to another is especially important. I'm lucky that I've been able to do that. When you get into a new field, you don't have some position to protect. You can ask any dumb question, and learn an awful lot. Sometimes you bring something different to that field than the people who are already in it, so you can make some contribution.

What kind of books did you read when you were growing up?

Paul MacCready Interview Photo
Paul MacCready: I read the Oz stories, myths and fables. As a teenager, I remember Jerry Todd stories, who was kind of like a humorous Tom Swift. There were a lot of Big Little books, Flash Gordon and Tarzan, things like that. As I got older, some more serious books and novels, and now all kinds of books and there are great magazines that come in such great profusion, you can't possibly keep up with them all. The book that really got me going into something was Comstock's moth book. I got hugely involved, around the age of 10, in collecting butterflies and moths. I learned the scientific names of all the big butterflies and moths, and did a lot of collecting. At that age your mind is pretty fertile, and if you have a hobby you can devote yourself whole-heatedly to it. That was a good one, coaxing me to read, and be outside a lot.

Did that help create the kind of curiosity that would take you, later in life, into all sorts of new fields?

Paul MacCready: I think everybody is creative. When you're in the play pen, fiddling around with all sorts of things, you are creative. Certainly in the sandbox you are creative, playing around with toys or the boxes the toys come in, which often offer more creativity. Everybody is. The way you interact with people -- you are very creative in the way you manipulate adults when you're a youngster. You can figure out just how far to push them and so on. Then somehow you get into school and more standard parts of culture, and so much of this erodes with most people. But really, everybody is creative and -- put in the right circumstances, even if they haven't been what you call creative -- the creativity can be fanned into flame.

What led you into flying sail planes? You made models and so forth, but what led you in that direction, rather than in flying Cessnas and that sort of thing?

Paul MacCready: When you get into outdoor model airplane flying for duration, you learn about thermals and you hear a little bit about sail planes.


I remember a newsreel in, let's say, 1938, when I was 13 year old, that showed a sailplane flying over a slope at El Mirage. Just this big, graceful machine flying along -- it still sticks in my mind as an early memory. The newsreel also showed a crash a few minutes later, but that didn't bother me. No one was hurt. It was such a wonderful kind of flying. And I found that it was a wonderful, addicting hobby.

[ Key to Success ] Passion


Paul MacCready Interview Photo
Its a very scientific sort of hobby, its not just like going out and rowing a boat. You get involved in the science of the vehicle, because the vehicle has to be efficient. You have to learn something about meteorology to figure out where the upcurrents are and how to make proper use of them. It doesn't matter what your background is, you become a scientist of sorts if you get involved actively in sailplaning.

It must be wonderful to have a hobby where you marry your passion and your technological and scientific interests.

Paul MacCready: That particular hobby was good because I was able to fly in contests, which are a lot of fun, but sort of demanding. I didn't do much flying in between times, because it was very inconvenient. But for contests, you could go to a foreign country for weeks at a time, and learn a lot about the country, meet a lot of people from all around the world, and do the flying. It was a very special hobby.


I don't think of myself as especially competitive, and I sometimes wonder about competitions and how they motivate people. I don't have a lot of answers, but the competitions are great things for coordinating people's interests. It doesn't matter whether there is a money prize, or just a trophy. People get together and do compete, and share, and it may not matter who wins. If you are in a contest, there is always some motivation towards trying to win, but the real value is just entering in the competition.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity


There are many people who would look at that and think that it is just one step away from sky diving. There is a great deal of danger and excitement in that. Did you think about it in that way?

Paul MacCready: I didn't do anything that I thought was dangerous. Danger is not the least bit appealing. It's just dumb. You should avoid it. When you are flying inside thunderstorms, you go to where some of the most vicious weather is, maybe in some hailstorm, into the hail-generating part of the cloud. Huge upcurrents and downcurrents and big turbulence. You can get into things that are a bit more intense than expected, and you may have to land in some giant wind, with big wind shear. You get a proper respect for weather, and you try to be very careful. But still, in various competitions, I found that by making a series of very safe decisions, I still ended up in an unsafe place. It didn't make me thrilled or excited. It just made me mad, and I resolved not to get in those circumstances again.


The last flight I had in competition, in the 1956 International contest in France that I won, I got in circumstances where whether I survived or didn't just was a flip of the coin. Whether the turbulence went that way, or that way. As I was down in a valley from which there was no way to get out, with huge turbulence just buffing, like a little chip of wood in a frothing surf.

[ Key to Success ] Courage


I didn't like that. There are often many sail planes all on the same thermal, and people not watching out properly. I found other people willing to take many more chances than I would, and two sail planes would be willing to go on the same small cloud at the same time and things like that. I began figuring this really wasn't the sport for me. I did some dumber things after that, but never with the intention of it being dangerous.

You can find your thrills in other ways?

Paul MacCready: Yes. Too much to lose. Life is too pleasant.

As you look back, was there a moment you would identify as your big break?

Paul MacCready: The most exciting event was when it suddenly dawned on me that there was a sure-fire approach that would permit one to win the Kremer Prize, achieve the sustained control of human-powered flight. Winning the prize was nice, but that was just inevitable, once one had the idea. That was the important part. That was the sort of "A-ha!" moment. Many wonderful things have evolved as a consequence of that. Life would have been OK if that hadn't happened, but it launched me on a bunch of other areas, which my background did prepare me for, but I didn't know what they were.

You have now built, if I have the number correct, five planes that are powered either by human energy, or by solar energy. What is it that fascinates you about minimal or low-energy vehicles? What is it that got you so focused on that?

Paul MacCready Interview Photo
Paul MacCready: What was really fascinating about human-powered flight was the £50,000 prize for achieving it. That's the sole reason that I got into it. A subsequent project of human-powered flight was the Gossamer Albatross flight across the Channel. That was for £100,000. That was the glorious motive for doing that project. After that, the projects were done for somewhat more altruistic reasons. One thing led to another, and we couldn't have anticipated what happened. They all have tended to feature light-weight, pushing-the-frontier, low-power, electric power, solar power, human power and so on. There was a lot of random influence, but it all began because of prize money.

You had a particular economic incentive, a particular reason that you were interested in that prize money. What was it?

Paul MacCready: I had guaranteed a relative's loan at a bank for roughly $100,000 for him to start a company which didn't succeed, and he couldn't pay the money back, and as guarantor of the note, I was obligated to pay the money back. Because of some peculiar circumstances, I thought I had some liquid assets around, but they had evaporated while all this was going on. So I was stuck with the debt, which was rather annoying. There wasn't anything I could do about it. And, I didn't have any special plans on what to do, but I couldn't figure out how to handle it. But I was going on this vacation trip in the summer of 1976, having time to just day dream, let the mind dawdle around on what it wanted to think about. Nibble away on old memories, and new thoughts and making connections that I otherwise would not have made.


I did recall, with no special emphasis, this £50,000 prize that Henry Kremer had put up 17 years earlier. And then, one day I happened to notice that at that time the pound was worth just two dollars. Suddenly, this great light bulb just glowed over my head: the prize was $100,000, my debt was $100,000. There just may be some interesting connection between these two. So my interest in human-powered flight zoomed up to high level, and I fussed away at it, and eventually it worked.

[ Key to Success ] Vision


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This page last revised on Jul 16, 2010 16:26 EDT