One afternoon recently a mustached and goggled gentleman flyer landed his classic Stearman biplane on the cracked runway of Shafter Airport near Bakersfield, Calif., a strip once used by the Army Air Corps but now the home of nothing more glorious than a few crop dusters. He climbed out, walked briskly to an open hangar at the north end of the airstrip and inquired if he might watch the work going on inside. After looking in on the activities, the gentleman thanked everybody, strode back to his biplane and flew off into the cloudless California sky.
What had aroused the curiosity of the dapper pilot, a man obviously appreciative of flying machines, was a craft that is very likely to make aviation history before the summer ends. If this machine, called the Gossamer Condor, passes an established test, it will be recognized as the first truly successful man-powered aircraft. In other words, man finally will have learned to fly by means of his own muscle and mind.
The Gossamer Condor is a strange and fragile bird, the backyard project of Dr. Paul MacCready, an aeronautical engineer and a former international soaring champion. It is made of nothing more exotic or sturdy than corrugated cardboard, balsa wood, paper-thin aluminum, piano wire, Styrofoam, Scotch tape, rope and Mylar, a tough sort of cellophane that covers the craft and makes it transparent.
The Gossamer Condor's wingspan is 96 feet—more than that of a DC9—but the plane weighs a mere 77 pounds. Its tail, which controls altitude and direction, is not a tail at all, but a proboscis, and its twin-bladed propeller, one blade of bright red and the other of bright yellow, is in the rear. The pilot (MacCready refers to the pilot as the "engine") sits on a small plastic seat under the wing and powers the propeller by pumping bicycle pedals.
July 31, 1977
The pilot pumps at some 90 revolutions per minute to turn the big prop blades at about 110 rpm. This enables the Gossamer Condor to do 10 mph or so, roughly the speed of a jogger over a six-minute mile. While the plane is flying, chasers keep pace with it, usually on bicycles, ready to catch and steady the craft when it lands, which is often suddenly.
The established test the Condor must pass is called the Kremer Competition. In 1959 a rich and rather eccentric British industrialist named Henry Kremer deposited ¬£5,000 with London's Royal Aeronautical Society, specifying that it was to be awarded to the first Briton to fly a man-powered aircraft around a figure-eight course of one mile, and be at an altitude of at least 10 feet at the start and finish. Eight years later, when nobody had claimed the prize, Kremer doubled it and opened the competition to international entries. In 1973 he raised the prize to ¬£50,000 (about $86,000).
Paul MacCready is both confident and determined that he will soon be $86,000 richer. A licensed pilot at 16, he bought his first airplane at 21. In 1948, 1949 and 1953 he was the national soaring champion. He won the international title in 1956. He has a B.S. in physics from Yale and a masters degree in physics plus a Ph. D. in aeronautical engineering from Cal Tech. He now heads a firm called Aerovironment, Inc. in Pasadena.
Though the Kremer Competition is certainly sporting as well as scientific, the 51-year-old MacCready is approaching it with the attitudes and methods of a scientist rather than a sportsman. In fact, he approaches most things in life scientifically. When asked a question about the romance of flight, he will reply with a technical answer. MacCready is the kind of man who, fielding a casual "How's it goin'?", ponders the question seriously for a moment, then replies, "Well, some things are going well, others not so well."
The initial test of the Gossamer Condor was made at about two o'clock one morning in a drizzle in the parking lot of the Rose Bowl, and MacCready recalls no ecstasy over its success. He says he can barely remember the moment of the contraption's first lift-off last November at Mojave Airport in the Mojave Desert—certainly he cannot recall any emotion. "I've got it in my notes somewhere," he mumbles as he flips through a folder of formidable scribbles.
MacCready candidly admits that one of his major motives for entering the Kremer Competition is money—not just the $86,000 prize, but the financial spinoffs that recognition would bring. He has refused to seek sponsors for the project because he would rather not get involved in any exploitation until after the Kremer prize has been won. He uses the word "exploitation" freely, but in its pure sense. "My goal in exploiting this project is money," he says. "Publicity is not a goal in itself, but can be a useful element in exploitation. But any exploitation must be ethical and professional. I don't want this to turn into an Evel Knievel sort of promotion."
More than a dozen man-powered craft—most of them English—have been airborne, and although the Condor is believed to be the leader in the Kremer Competition, a Japanese team is also close to completing the course. However, it has taken the Japanese 12 years to approach success, while MacCready has been trying to fly for less than one year. The Japanese effort is being made by mechanical-engineering students at Nihon University in Tokyo. Their instructor has been Dr. Hidemasa Kimura, designer of the World War II Zero fighter plane. There have been a number of Japanese designs and the latest is called the Stork. In January the Stork flew 1.3 miles, but the flight ended when the pilot reached the end of the runway and couldn't turn the craft around. Successful turning is critical.
Still, when MacCready learned of the Stork's success, he decided he had better step up his program lest the Japanese solve their turning problems and manage a figure eight before him. So after one encouraging test flight of 1.5 miles last March, MacCready made an official attempt to complete the Kremer course at the Shafter Airport. But it was premature: the Gossamer Condor wasn't ready to execute the turns, either, and it crashed before it got very far.
Since then, MacCready has learned that the Japanese have been derailed for a month or two while they redesign their wing to improve turning. Now he is carefully refining the Condor before he makes another attempt. He also has lifted the wrap of secrecy that heretofore covered the project, because he feels secure that the Stork can't catch the Condor even if the Japanese learn of its progress.
Every Friday night MacCready drives from his home in Pasadena to the hangar in Shafter. He lives in the hangar on weekends, occupying a sleeping bag at night. He flies at dawn—the Gossamer Condor only works in still air, and usually by 8 a.m. the breeze is too brisk for flying—and refines all day. A test flight two weeks ago was one of the most promising yet, even though it ended in a crash. At first light, MacCready woke his crew, which consists of family (his chief test pilot is his 15-year-old son Tyler, a hang-gliding enthusiast) and various volunteers. They rolled the plane out of the hangar. MacCready and Tyler conversed briefly—their arms waving and flapping like wings, as if they were trying to fly—before Tyler made a warm-up flight of about 300 yards. Then the probable pilot for the Kremer Competition, 24-year-old Bryan Allen, whose hang-gliding experience and strong legs from bicycle racing make him an ideal "engine," stepped in. After pedaling the plane on the ground for no more than 20 feet, he lifted it gracefully into the air, where it became a surreal silhouette against a huge, red, rising summer sun. It rustled in the morning stillness like a dry-cleaning bag in a breeze, and the big red-and-yellow propeller churned away slowly like a windmill on a lazy afternoon.
Allen flew the quarter mile to the south end of the runway, executed a 180-degree turn, and flew another half mile back down the runway. But at that point a crop duster took off about 100 yards away, swirling up a turbulence that shook the fragile craft and snapped one of its wings. Still, the Gossamer Condor did not collapse or nose-dive; it simply stalled and floated gently to the ground like a piece of tissue paper. MacCready considered the test a success. The repair job took only a few hours.
"I have been through many exciting times in sports and business," says MacCready. "I have done a lot of flying in light planes in thunderstorms for research. I have flown lots of national and international sailplane contests, made flights at high altitudes and had my experiences. I expect stuff to be successful because I know it will be; if one just eats away at it, it's going to work. Aerodynamic theories and knowledge of human physiology say that this thing will fly. It's not a matter of if, but a matter of when. Whether or not the achievement will be regarded as a significant milestone in aviation, I don't know for sure. But we'll fly."
Some folks feel the whole idea of man-powered flight is still much more romantic than practical. Some think the Gossamer Condor is downright anachronistic. Maybe so. But if it is an anachronism, it is an anachronism with a point. When Leonardo da Vinci was trying to fly five centuries ago, he would never have believed that man would be capable of walking on the moon before he could actually fly under his own power.