On June 12, 1979, a 26-year-old Californian with considerable skill in bicycle racing and hang gliding name Bryan Allen successfully piloted an ultralight aircraft with a 96-foot, clear plastic wingspan, The Cossamer Albatross, across the English Channel, a distance of 23 miles from Folkestone, England, to Cape Gris Nez, France, in 2 hours and 54-minutes, using only his muscles to power the aircraft. In effect, he pedaled over the Channel, probably the ultimate act of Breaking Away.
The Gossamer Albatross and its predecessor, The Gossamer Condor, now on permanent display in the National Air and Space Museum, were both designed and built by a 54-year-old Californian with a PhD in aeronautics, a flier and glider himself, Paul MacCready. MacCready undertook the projects with one goal in mind -- to win the offered cash prizes for sustained manpowered flight. The 13-mile, 69-minute flight of the Condor in 1977 was worth $100,000; the Channel crossing was worth an additional $200,000.
"I wanted to get some income to pay off a debt I had guaranteed for a relative," MacCready said yesterday.
"There wasn't any thought of how it would affect aviation history; the thought that it would end up in the Smithsonian never entered my head. Nothing more than economic."
Say goodnight, Tinker Bell.
Two views of the soaring hawk:
The romantic gazes, overcome by envy, ticking off words like "strength," beauty" and "grace." Feeling himself rooted to the earth and longing for the freedom and solitude of space, he thinks of long, sweeping lines and composes a sonata for piano and violin, and the notes bloom in color, swirling into each other in kaleidoscopic reverie. The romantic believes only in today, this time. To fly off this once, then die. Icarus, it is told, made wings out of feathers and wax but didn't understand the relationship of God and Man and flew too close to the sun. The wax melted. Idcarus plunged to earth. Hopeless romanic, here we go again.
The scientist studies, asking questions of the hawk's craft. How does this help you gather food? avoid enemies? Continue your species? He estimates the angle of the bank as the bird circles, calculates the radius and the speed, figures the wing load and the lift coefficient. In his mind a computer prints numbers and letters in tight, cold type, a black line on white paper. The scientist believes only in tomorrow, for today is already done. Paul MacCready built his wings out of plastic, put a man inside a see-though bubble and had him pedal this fragile dragonfly across miles of thin air. And, should he choose to, could do it again and again and again.
Tonight, at a ceremony here in Washington, MacCready will receive the Collier Award, given annually for the greatest achievement in aviation. John Glenn won for orbiting Earth. Neil Armstrong won for landing on the moon. MacCready has won for building a 70-pound aircraft that moved at about 11 miles per hour, at an average height of about 30 feet and went 23 miles. Although the Albatross has been cheered by the general public for its flight of fancy on Gossamer wing, MacCready is surprised by the enthusiasm of the aerospace community for it. "The establishment sees a pioneering aspect to it," he said. "I thought they'd consider it a trivial thing with no practical application."
Not that it has practical application.
With a 747 available to take hundreds of people thousands of miles, who needs to pedal a hunk of Saran Wrap from Alexandria to Chevy Chase? Historically and mythologically, man always dreamed of selfpowered flight; had the cavemen only dreamt of engines, Leonardo da Vinci might have designed the L-1011.
"The point is," MacCready said, "it doesn't have to be justified by practical application. You don't climb Everest and meet that challenge because you're going to put a motel up there. . . . You can't do something this pioneering -- it might not be an important subject -- without a lot useful things coming from it. It's just that humanpowered flight isn't one of them." t
MacCready is a serious man. He built a serious machine for a serious, no-frills flight -- no snacks, no stewardesses and no stereo. Yesterday, he wore a seriously dark suit and a seriously buttoned-down shirt, and his face was seriously pale as he talked for more than one hour about what he did, and not once did he smile, not once. But he is, by his own admission, a scientist, not a romantic; not a poet. A dreamer, maybe, but only within the confines of what he called "the technological sandbox," and the closest he came to gazing with envy at the soaring hawk was this: "It's like you are on a serious trip, maybe driving from Washington to Boston, and along the way you stop for a picnic at a beautiful place. There are fleecy clouds and a babbling brook and flowers in bloom, and you have fun. Then, you get back in the car and continue your trip."
The picnic, you see, is an interlude. Thin. Flimsy.
Like gossamer, perhaps.
For more than one hour he sat at a table having breakfast. His hands never left his arms. His arms rarely left the table. The only part of his body that seemed animated were his eyes, which darted about like a pigeon's.. He had that Mr. Peepers look, the look of a man you see on a science show on public television at 9 in the morning on Saturday, someone you never see on a prime-time comedy. He is the man who explains why disco dancing causes bursitis; he doesn't ride the boogie himself.
"Most people look at Paul and see only the scientist," said Bryan Allen. "Externally, he's certainly not a romantic type. He's very much a capitalist, very mauch a pragmatist. He tends to be quite analytical. Yet here he is, organizing a wildly romantic project. He's a more complicated person than he appears to be."
And is he a hero?
"No," MacCready said.
He reached for a piece of bacon.
"No. I'm not a hero, though a lot of people now have a much higher regard for my abilities than I do. Actually I don't want the glory. The glory takes time and involves too much responsibility. It's much more enjoyable to work on the next thing than talk about the past thing."
Paul MacCready was always enamored of flight. He built model airplanes, got a pilot's license, flew weather missions into thunderstorms, became a champion glider and soarer, and later took up hang gliding. He may have built his whole life on thin air, starting an environmental and energy-related consulting firm, Aero Vironment. "Freud assumed that fascination with flight was all sexual. I don't think that's the case. There was a research flavor to the model airplanes and the sailplanes; it appeals to one's innate desire to try new stuff. It's fun to do stuff that's new and different just because of the challenge. Man is addicted to challenge." Then, in what certainly seemed like a classic Freudian slip: "What I found was a chance to probe new areas."
What is nest for the man called The Father of Manpowered Flight? Making ultralight, ultra-efficient vehicles for surface transportation. Streamlined bicycles to reduce dependence on foreign oil imports.
And the next dream for the maybe dreamer?
Well, he might like to design an aircraft that was so silent and so slow and so soaring that he could slip it into a formation of geese and migrate with them, to go where the wild goose goes as a brother.
Now what does all of this tell us about the man? That he is a genius? A madman? That his Condor and Albatross are the mind games of his technological sandbox? That he is one of those creative scientists whose lives are defined by the creation of artificial puzzles and then the creation of artificial escapes from their mazes?
"I'm just not sufficiently introspective to figure out the whys," he said.
The Gossamer Condor hangs in the National Air and Space Museum like a puffed-up Ziploc sandwich bag.
MacCready stood under it, not even bothering to glance up as a photographer took pictures.
"The Albatross," he said, "may have been more dramatic, but it didn't contain a single new idea."
The Condor was his baby, his first house, his first car.
Only once did he allow himself a peek.
"It's a little bit dusty," Paul MacCready said, speaking environmentally, of course.