THE FULLNESS OF WINGS The Making of a New Daedalus By Gary Dorsey Viking. 350 pp. $19.95
IN MY DREAMS, flight is silent, with no screaming jets or roaring rockets disturbing the stillness of my fancy as I climb for the clouds. And somehow I power the craft myself. I urge it to fly and it responds. That is what this book is about, the dream of quiet, self-propelled flight.
Thirty years ago an English industrialist named Henry Kramer offered a prize of $129,000 to the first person to fly a heavier-than-air machine around a figure-eight course, using human power alone. The prize was not claimed until 1977 when Paul MacCready Jr. and a team from California watched as Brian Allen pedaled the Gossamer Condor for over a mile around the prescribed course. Today, the Condor hangs in glory at the National Air and Space Museum, close by Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. At the time of the Condor's triumph, a similar contraption, named BURD (Biplane Ultralight Research Device), was gathering dust in a hangar near Boston. Built by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, BURD was a flop, never able to leave the ground even when augmented by model airplane engines. But it served an eventual purpose, that of challenging three MIT undergraduates to prove they could succeed where BURD had failed. Gary Dorsey's readable account traces their work for a decade, culminating in the flight of Daedalus from Crete to the Greek island of Santorini on April 23, 1988.
John Langford, Bob Parks and Harold "Guppy" Youngren all started out as model rocket builders. In 1978, the MIT Rocket Society's space models placed second in the world championship, and shortly after this BURD attracted the group's attention. Langford thought that BURD was "designed by a bunch of guys who didn't know how to build, dreamed up by people who knew theory but couldn't find their way around a C-clamp." Parks decided that it suffered a common scientific affliction, "Paralysis Through Analysis." Little by little the trio was drawn into the venture, first designing a marginal flyer, Chrysalis, and then Monarch the fastest human powered airplane in the world. By the time they undertook the Daedalus Project, the daunting task of recreating the mythical wax-winged flight of Daedalus and his son Icarus, their team had grown to three dozen, nearly all MIT students.
The strong point of this book is the detailed, interesting way Dorsey follows the individual team members and how they were organized, more or less, into an effective group. They thought of themselves as "hackers" rather than "tools," or conformists. They avoided class whenever possible, preferring to work with their hands rather than to endure the stifling, theoretical work of the classroom. Langford, who emerged as their leader, described them as "hackers, radical rocketmen, jocks, cynics and skeptics." An erratic, cantankerous and rebellious bunch, they were also extraordinarily talented engineers and craftsmen. Their proposal to the MIT hierarchy stated they must produce "a unique synthesis of technology, physiology, meteorology . . ." The project also required more work than any of them had imagined, but nearly all of them stuck with it and even maintained their sense of mischief. When one student fell exhausted at his workplace, the others simply glued him to the floor and continued.
The route followed by Daedalus and Icarus has been variously described in dozens of different versions of the myth, but most suggest the departure point was King Minos' palace at Knossos, Crete. Ovid also mentions the island of Santorini. So the route selected has a firm historical basis. It also was picked for a uniquely 20th-century reason: it provided the excellent hotel and communications facilities required for international press coverage. It was a shorter route, 72 miles, than most other choices, and that too was a vital consideration. Daedalus operated at the very limit of human endurance. The pilot -- the motor -- had to produce one third horsepower of continual pedal power for approximately five hours. With even a slight headwind, it stretched to six hours. Flying Daedalus at 15 miles per hour was the equivalent of bicycling at a world-class speed of 22 miles per hour.
The first pilot chosen was a woman, the theory being that although less powerful than some males, she also weighed less, and therefore was more efficient. Flight tests soon revealed, however, that nothing short of a world-class cyclist was required. Five were chosen and taught to fly. The winner, through a combination of raw power, skill, and happenstance, was 30-year-old Kanellos Kanellopoulos, who had won the Tour of Greece for 13 straight years and was regarded as that country's top cyclist.
The machine itself was as remarkable as those who built and flew it. With a wingspan of 112 feet, about that of an airliner, it weighted in at an unbelievable 68 pounds. It was a marvel of modern materials -- graphite fiber, Styrofoam, a Mylar skin only a few molecules thick. Gary Dorsey describes it well, this blend of art and technology.
Dorsey spent many months living with the Daedalus team and developed a fine appreciation for the genius of Langford's zany bunch. The Fullness Of Wings is at its best in explaining how Daedalus became the dominant, unifying force in the lives of these fiercely independent engineers. He is less successful in probing the pilots, stoic loners who logged as much as 600 miles per week on their bicycles.
The book also has some flaws. The flight from Crete to Santornini seems anticlimactic, as Dorsey devotes only a dozen pages to it. The author's writing can be as erratic as the Daedalus team itself. His odd concept of time, for example, requires that we know that an event took place on a Friday, or at eight in the morning, but never mind in what year. He could have used more editing help. There is an equation without an equal sign, we have landing "sights" instead of sites, and one thought-provoking sentence reads, "Gup tooled around on a recumbent bicycle."
Two larger concerns linger in my mind. First, is there any future for a human-powered aircraft? This book really does not answer the question, but suggests not. Today, John Langford is trying to apply this light-weight technology to a high altitude, unmanned vehicle to probe the stratosphere, to measure conditions in the Antarctic's ozone hole, but beyond that, what? Second, is this book of interest to a general audience? As a pilot and exercise freak, I was fascinated by some of the details of two of my hobbies, but how about others not so afflicted? I think yes, Dorsey has carried it off. The Fullness of Wings is a successful book, entertaining and instructive. Michael Collins is the author of "Carrying the Fire" and of the forthcoming "Mission to Mars," which will be published this fall.