A lean, 26-year-old biologist, cyclist and hang-glider from California made the first man-powered flight across the English Channel today by pedaling the flimsy, polyester-bodied Gossamer Albatross from Folkestone to Cap Gris Nez.
Pumping furiously inside a transparent cockpit under the 96-foot wingspan of the 60-pound plane, Bryan Allen kept the plastic propeller behind him turning fast enough to skim 10 to 30 feet above the calm Channel waters at about 8 miles per hours. The crossing took just under three hours, a little longer than expected because Allen had to veer around a supertanker in his path.
"It wasn't as tough as we expected." Allen told reporters who gathered around him on the sandy French beach where he landed, about 10 miles from Calais. "It only seemed that way when I was only halfway across the Channel."
The 22-mile flight broke his own world distance record for muscle-powered flight and won for Allen and the plastic pedal plane's inventor, California aeronautical designer Paul Mac Cready, a $200,000 prize from a British industrial and the Royal Aeronautical Society here.
Businessman Henry Kremer put up the money for the cross-channel competition after Allen, MacCready and their team of helpers won the $100,000 Kremer Prize for the first sustained human-powered flight in a prototype of the Gossamer Albatross in the California desert in 1977.
That prize had gone unclaimed for 18 years.
There is no immediate application of the technology in MacCready's craft as far as anyone knows, except publicity, but man has been fascinated with the notion of flying under his own power throughout history. Like Icarus of Greek mythology, who flew too close the sun and melted his wax-and-feather wings, many attempts over the centuries ended in tragedy - or at least ignominy -as people with homemade wings attached to their arms jumped off cliffs and bridges only to crash to the ground.
The rules for the cross-channel competition won today were that the craft be heavier-than-air, ruling out balloons; take off from the ground, eliminating gliders and soaring planes; and be powered only by human muscle, barring motors, propellants, gases or pushes from the ground.
Today's flight was carefully monitored by Royal Aeronautical Society observers on the Folkstone dock used for the takeoff, in boats following the plane across the Channel and at the Calais beach landing site.
MacCready, known as the father of man-powered flight, brought the Gossamer Albatross, Allen and the crew to Britain last month to train and wait for the right weather: light wind and a calm channel. When conditions finally seemed promising this morning, the portable plane was assembled two hours before dawn.
The first takeoff attempt at 5 a.m. failed when the plane, rolling on tiny wheels down a wooden runway, toppled over onto the concrete quayside.
But neither the plane nor Allen - in his shorts, crash helmet, cycling shoes and lifejacket - was hurt, so another takeoff was tried just before 6 a.m. This time, Allen, cycling frantically against a slight headwind to generate the 1/3 horsepower that propels the plane, got it airborne.
When the plane thudded down three hours later onto the small Mermaid Beach near the Cap Gris Nez lighthouse on the northern French coast, the exhausted pilot was mobbed by a small crowd of helpers, observers, onlookers and reporters. He was disappointed that the landing damaged a wind of the plane, which he had hoped to demonstrate this week at the Paris air show.
But someone popped a cork and Allen gulped down champagne to celebrate his triumph, saying: "Wow, wow."
He said he had to change course twice during the flight, once to avoid the supertanker and once to stay with the accompanying launch in which MacCredy rode when it had to manuever around sand bars.
Allen is a serious, soft-spoken young man of wiry build whose strenghtweight ratio at 6 feet and 137 pounds was found to be exactly what MacCready's pedal plane demanded. Allen had been a bicycle racer in high school and college in California and later took up hang-gliding before he met MacCready.
To train, he bicycled 70 miles or two hours each day to simulate the exertion of pedaling the Gossamer Albatross across the Channel. During training, he said it was "very aesthetically pleasing to know you are powering the plane."
MacCready is an intense 53-year-old inventor and adventurer who earned a degree in physics at Yale before learning to fly in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He later became interested in gliders and won national and world soaring championships between 1948 and 1956.
He designed the Gossamer Condor pedal plane that won the Kremer Prize for man-powered flight when Allen steered it around a 1.5-mile figure-eight course in California. Later, he and Allen established the old world distance record of 13 miles for sustained muscle-powered flight.
The attraction of the prize money that Kremer and the Royal Aeronautical Society first offered in 1959 spurred the development of a variety of pedal-propelled planes by experimenters around the world. Many got off the ground and swooped forward for a distance, but none until the Gossamer Condon's figure-eight journey in 1977 could be considered true flight, including turns and flying to a determined destination.
MacCready's Gossamer planes have depended on their very light weight and his design for driving the propeller at the rear with bicycle-like pedals linked by a lightweight chain. CAPTION:
Picture 1, Bryan Allen of California wings along on the first man-powered flight across the English Channel. UPI; Picture 2, Allen answers questions after pedal-powered flight. AP; Picture 3, This early attempt at man-powered flying machine was more complicated than Allen's and less successful; Picture 4, Many self-powered flights have ended in tragedy, such as mythical Icarus. Villa Albani, Rome; Picture 5, Bryan Allen hovers over Channel water minutes before landing on beach. AP; Map, Flight of the Gossamer Albatross, By Richard Furno - The Washington Post