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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

Related Links:
PBS
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
American Society for Engineering Education

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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: 4 / 5)

Engineer of the Century

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  Paul MacCready

Even though you had done all this researching and testing, how exciting was the actual flight of the Gossamer Albatross over the Channel? Both for you, keeping track of what was going on, and for the pilot?

Paul MacCready Interview Photo


Paul MacCready: The actual event was one of the most exciting things I'll ever live through, or that any of the people involved in it will live through. That doesn't mean it's something we'd want to go do again. The pilot was tired, but the 100 other people in boats going along with him, trying to use psychokinesis to lift him up mentally, were also exhausted by the time the thing was over. The really big pressure was organizing this thing. You had to predict the previous day, by three o'clock, whether you were going to do a flight the next day. None of the weather forecasts ever agreed with the weather that subsequently materialized. It's a very difficult area to get good weather forecasts. I had a broken foot at the time, with a cast on, and I had to ride a bike over from the airport to a pay phone to get the weather forecasts, and then decide whether or not to turn on the whole project. Once the project was turned on, about 100 people, all the team, the DuPont people, journalist types, were converging from all over Europe. It was like running D-Day out of a telephone booth. Plus the usual pressure: we were running out of money and the weather wasn't right. Finally, we thought, "OK, let's try it." There was really zero chance of it working right the first time, so first plane was considered sort of a sacrificial plane. We didn't know what was going to go wrong, but we knew that any one of a hundred things could go wrong. We assembled the plane on an acre of concrete called the Warren, where one of the early tunnels was being dug from England to France, just in the right place for us.


I heard the wheel on the front of this was a toy wheel? Was it actually from a toy?


Paul MacCready: Yes, those are the lightest. You can't get any non-toy wheels that are down in the two ounce three ounce category. This was about five inches in diameter. It was only going to be used once on the flight, for a few seconds on take off. The rest of the time it was just dead weight. So you don't want it good, reliable, just strong enough to handle that. We found that for little toy trucks you can find such wheels, so that's what we used. This whole project, and the previous Gossamer Albatross project, was to win the prize. It wasn't to have fun, it wasn't to make a museum piece, it wasn't to make something that was ever going to fly a second flight. It was just to win the prize. And, the Gossamer Condor, we never even drew plans, until after the prize was won. You didn't need plans for the way we were doing it. We did use computers for some things, but there were no plans drawn. And its rare that you have a project that is so simple. One goal, and you can focus on that. People tend to formalize things more, and they do more drawings and make parts better than they need to be. We knew exactly what we were trying to do, and we compromised right to the very limit on every little part. So if a toy wheel worked, great.



Click on the diagram (above) to view
design details for Paul MacCready's second
human-powered aircraft, Gossamer Albatross.

So then, you got the Gossamer Albatross up in the air, and what happened next? Did everything go as planned?

Paul MacCready Interview Photo
Paul MacCready: It was up in the air and everything was going fine. There was radio communication both ways. I was in a boat about 1,500 feet in front of the plane navigating with radar, and figuring out where all the boats in the channel were going to be by the time we reached them, because you couldn't cross in front of one of the big super tankers. If you crashed, they can't turn, and you can't be within two miles behind them, because they leave turbulence in the air that would be too much for the plane. So you have to know where you are going to be 20 minutes ahead of time, where they are going to be, and make little variations in the course. The whole thing was quite a strain.

We felt that Brian could only keep the plane up for two hours. Prior tests had shown his stamina at the amount of power the plane required. So we only gave him enough water to avoid dehydration for two hours. Any extra water would have added weight, and then he couldn't even have lasted two hours. Unfortunately, a head wind cropped up and, after two hours, he was still nowhere near the French coast. He was all out of water, and the increased turbulence in the air made the power required a little bit higher for the plane. Finally, he had to give up and signal for a tow. A little rubber boat with several people in it, went around under him with a fishing pole, and was trying to snag a line on a little ring on the plane, to tow it to one coast or the other. But during this maneuvering, he had to move up higher, and he found that the air was a lot calmer up there, and it took a little less power. Even though they were trying to catch the plane all the time, he kept dodging. The radio wasn't working, but he signaled that he didn't want to be hooked up, and he decided to continue for five more minutes and give it a try. The five minutes became ten, became 15, became 20. Some of the time he was down low.


For a while he was down really just six inches above the water, and the changing winds and somehow he struggled along as his left leg cramped from the dehydration. He pedaled mostly with his right. Then his right leg would cramp, and he would pedal mostly with his left. Towards the end both legs were cramped, but he somehow got that last little bit. And there was extra turbulence that was almost beyond the capability of the plane to handle its controls, just in that last bit, 50 meters off shore. But finally he made it, and it was almost a three-hour flight. Beyond all odds, just impossible for human stamina to have kept going that long, but he did.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance


If it had been high tide, I think he wouldn't have made it, because we would have had to go an extra hundred meters to reach the shore. It was that close. He had worked for the last several months before the flight with a full-time exercise physiologist -- Professor Joe Mastropaolo, who helped him train to build up his stamina. He was a good bicyclist, but he hadn't been doing Olympic training. He worked at it very hard, and Mastropaolo, I think, gave him the real spirit, the attitude that you just don't quit. It doesn't matter how impossible, how painful. If you are conscious, you are still pedaling. Somehow this sunk into Brian. What he did is beyond reasonable human stamina. I've never seen anything like it. So, another day of great relief. This pressure was over. We were pretty sure we would succeed some time, but to have it work the first time was remarkable.

How did old Kremer take this, when you knocked off the second prize, on your way to the third one?

Paul MacCready: He really wanted a Britisher to win the first prize. There was a British team, sort of working towards the second prize. I think maybe he thought that prize would be just right for the British team, but they didn't come close. I think they were annoyed that an American won the next one. They were also annoyed DuPont was sponsoring it. It looked like this was a big corporation project. Actually, DuPont didn't sponsor the development of the plane. They said, do the project your own way and they'd take care of the major expenses.

There was another Kremer prize of about £10,000 -- around $15,000 -- to duplicate our first Gossamer Condor flight. A couple of high school kids could have just copied the Condor, and built it with $500 of parts, and won that prize in England, but nobody did. It's kind of hard to figure out. But people in England were most cooperative. We got help throughout. People didn't seem to care that we were Yanks from overseas. As soon as we landed, the hangar that we had been intending to use fell through, and in just that day, we were able to get the Manston RAF base to provide a hangar, which they cleaned out. It was just big enough for us to set up operations in. A lot of people cooperated like that. They were delighted to see the prize won. That was one of the reasons that we were delighted to have the plane go to the science museum in London for a while. I gave it to the Smithsonian here, but they loaned it to the science museum in London.

Paul MacCready Interview Photo
In this same time period, you also starting building low-energy planes that flew on solar power.

Paul MacCready: The Gossamer Albatross project was a grabber on television, because it was a very exciting thing. There was a good movie done on it that showed some of the excitement. So, when we went to DuPont with the idea of a solar-powered airplane, they said yes. They figured if I said it could be done, then it could be done. They were going to handle expenses, there was no prize. The prize was somehow getting the man on the street, the government administrator, and so on, to have a little better appreciation for what solar cells can do. They are an important part of our energy future, and they will be one of the things that helps wean us away from this addiction to foreign oil which we now have.

Was it a lot easier to design the solar-powered aircraft?

Paul MacCready Interview Photo
Paul MacCready: Nothing is easy. First we made the Gossamer Penguin, which was a leftover human-powered airplane from the cross-channel project. Three quarters the size of the Gossamer Albatross. We happened to have a small panel's worth of solar cells at the beginning of the project, and we put those on. We just wanted to get our hands dirty, learning about the solar cells, how you glue them on, and how you wire them up, the problems of overheating the little electric motor, and so on. We put this panel up over the top of the airplane. It provided very little power, 400 watts or something.

Paul MacCready Interview Photo
We needed very lightweight pilots, so we used my son Marshall, who was only 13, as the pilot, because he only weighed 80 pounds. This plane was so different than a regular airplane, that it didn't give you any special advantage to have regular airplane training. Training in skateboards and unicycles is really good training for this. He flew the plane very well. Adapted quickly, and went through a lot of test flights. One very dramatic crash, but like all our crashes, it's low and slow (15 miles an hour in this case), the pilot wears a helmet, and nobody got hurt. No worse than you would in a small bicycle accident. He did the first flight where any human has climbed on the power of sunbeams. For publicity purposes, we had to show it in a long flight for the media at Edward's Air Force Base. But they weren't interested in having a 13 year-old kid without a license flying out of there.

The goal of these projects was really media. That's what the money was being paid for. So having to spend extra weeks on special flights is not a distraction from our project, it is part of our project. Some of the engineers just wanted to do the airplane, but after a while they realized this is all part of the program. Handling the media right is just as important as a better airfoil. The more people hear about it, the more they understand about solar cells and lightweight construction.

Paul MacCready Interview Photo
Flying an airplane on solar power doesn't really make sense. You can do it as a stunt or a symbol, but you're not going to have solar-powered airliners. The Solar Challenger was a very elegantly designed, developed airplane. It had a 48-foot span, weighed about 100 pounds of airplane structure, and about 100 pounds of solar cells and motor and wiring and so on, a little over 200 pounds total. The only way to get it to fly properly was to use a very lightweight pilot. We used either a 95-pound woman, or a 125-pound man, because that's the easiest way to save weight. It would just barely take off on the sun power that you get near the ground, where there is usually a little haze. You'd get about 1500 watts of solar energy to make it take off. It would kind of stagger into the air at about 19 miles an hour. But the higher it got, the stronger the sunshine is. The cooler the solar cells get, the more power it gets, so it flies better and better. It finally did the flight for which it was intended, Paris to the St. Manston RAF base in England, 163 miles at 11,000 feet. Most of the flight at that altitude was at about 40 miles per hour. So it did its job and was shown around at various exhibits and then it became a museum piece, like some of our other vehicles.

You've used solar power for planes and for cars, but does this have a broader commercial application? Will this become part of our lives?

Paul MacCready: Looking back over various unusual vehicles, there usually isn't a direct application of that vehicle. But now, when we are interested in energy conservation, some of those ideas are really important.


The simplest analogy I can think of is Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic in 1927, which was really a pretty bum airplane. Well tailored for that purpose, but you couldn't see ahead of you, it was unstable. There was no reason ever to make another one. It was good for just that one flight. So here is an impractical airplane. It didn't help aviation engineering, and yet it changed the world, because it did that flight and, mixed with Lindbergh's personality, it was just the right moment. It was the catalyst that got us into being a real aviation country.


Paul MacCready Interview Photo
Some things that followed stimulated commercial airline transport, which has shrunk the world by a factor of 10 in size. So if you ask, "Was Lindbergh's flight in that plane valuable to help engineering?" No. To change the world, yes. It was certainly the most important invention in 1927. Some other inventions -- a better bearing, a better egg beater and so on -- may have made people more money right then, but changing the way people think is much more important than some little gadget you can make money on.

Did you see the Solar Challenger in the same way that you look back on Lindbergh's flight? That it had a certain symbolic importance aside from whatever interest it may have generated scientifically? You suggest it wasn't something that was likely to be commercially applicable, but that it did have some sort of symbolic significance to the public.

Paul MacCready: Just the fact that you can fly on the power of sunbeams is pretty remarkable. People think differently when they realize that. It's a catalyst for thinking. It just gets people to think a little more deeply, and a little more openly about alternative energy options.

You think about that a great deal these days.

Paul MacCready: Energy options? Yes.


Energy is one part of the whole problem. There are too many people and too much consumption, and not enough earth. We could get by with it in the past, but population has tripled since I was born, and there is more energy materials per capita being used now, and species are being wiped out. The latest number I saw is that one species is disappearing every four minutes because of man. We are facing a very different ball game. You can't extrapolate it from the past. Anything that makes it so we can get along on this limited world is better. Doing more with less is part of it, and somehow getting off our energy jag or addiction is important. You can do so many things with so much less energy that we now use. Now regular airliners, especially modern ones, are really designed brilliantly. They're made for efficiency. Nobody cares what they look like on the outside, but they are made to do their job. The aerodynamics is elegant, the structure is elegant, and they are really fine. Cars, on the other hand, are designed for a very different purpose. Styling is important, inexpensive mass-production is important, safety, operation by unskilled people, and you like peppy performance. When you do all that, they consume a lot of power. There aren't any airplane aerodynamicists involved in their design, although there are good aerodynamicists mixed in with the stylists. But look at the underside of any car. It sees the air just as much as the top-side sees it, but you realize how little attention is paid to smooth aerodynamics of cars. There sort of shouldn't be, gasoline was so cheap.


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