Paul MacCready (1925 – 2007) was an aeronautical engineer and inventor of the first human-powered aircraft.
MacCready was born in Connecticut to family of doctors. He was fascinated by engineering and airplanes from a young age. At 15 he won a national model building contest. He said, “I was always the smallest kid in the class and certainly not the athlete type. And so, when I began getting into model airplanes, and getting into contests and creating new things, I probably got more psychological benefit from that than I would have from some of the other typical school things.”
MacCready trained as a US Navy pilot during World War II. He gained a degree in physics from Yale University and a Ph.D. in aeronautics from Caltech. In 1951, MacCready founded his first company, Meteorology Research Inc, to carry out atmospheric research. He was a pioneer in the use of aircraft to study meteorological phenomena.
He was an expert glider and won a national contest for gliding three times between 1948 and 1953. In 1956 he became the World Soaring Champion. He was an inventor and came up with a device that optimised speed choices for glider pilots, depending on conditions. It is still in use.
In the 1970s, he invested in a business that failed, leaving him with a $100,000 debt. This motivated him to enter the Kremer competition which offered a reward for the first human-powered flight.
The Kremer Prize had been set up in 1959 by British industrialist, Henry Kremer. It promised £50,000 ($100,000) in prize money to the first group that could fly a human-powered aircraft over a figure-eight course covering a total of one mile and including certain height markers. Early efforts to build human-powered aircraft had featured wooden designs, which proved too heavy. Some used catapults to launch the craft. Different British teams had achieved limited success with distance but struggled to steer their craft around the course. The prize stood unclaimed for 18 years.
Paul MacCready and Peter Lissaman took a fresh look at the challenge. They came up with an unorthodox design called the Gossamer Condor. It was based on hang gliders with a very large wing area and a gondola underneath for the pilot. It featured a novel control mechanism called a canard ahead of the main fuselage. The craft was built of lightweight plastics, bicycle parts and aluminum spars. It was capable of taking off under human power.
The Gossamer Condor
The Gossamer Condor was designed to be easily modified and repaired after the many crashes which it suffered in development. At one stage the tail flap was adjusted by taping a piece of card to it. There were many evolutions.
Eventually, on August 23, 1977, the aircraft, piloted by Bryan Allen, stayed aloft for seven minutes and completed the figure-eight course specified by the Royal Aeronautical Society, at Minter Field in Shafter, California. The prize was won.
The Gossamer Condor is preserved at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Kremer offered a further £100,000 for the first human-powered crossing of the English Channel. MacCready accepted the challenge. In 1979, he built the Condor’s successor, the Gossamer Albatross, and with it he won the second Kremer prize, successfully flying from England to France. For his design and construction of the Albatross, MacCready was awarded the Collier Trophy, an annual prize for the greatest achievement in aeronautics.
In 1971 he founded AeroVironment Inc., a public company that developed unmanned aircraft. It built the first airplane to be powered by hydrogen fuel cells, the Global Observer.
He went on to design and build solar-powered aircraft such as the Gossamer Penguin and the Solar Challenger. He worked with NASA on solar-powered aircraft and with General Motors on the design of a solar-powered car.
In 1985, he built a half-scale working replica of the pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus for the Smithsonian Institution. The remote-controlled flying reptile had a wingspan of 18 feet. It flew successfully several times before crashing at an airshow in Maryland.
MacCready helped to sponsor the Nissan Dempsey/MacCready Prize for innovations in racing-bicycle technology and faster human-powered vehicles.
He died in 2007 from a melanoma.
Insights for Innovators
Fly, crash, adapt. Other contestants spent years designing and building sophisticated aircraft which failed to win the prize. MacCready’s team won in months. Part of their secret was the use of a fast feedback loop. They flew, they crashed, they adapted the plane. Failure was expected and used as source of learning and improvement. When we learn to ride a bicycle, we expect to fall off a few times. Despite the advocates of power of positive thinking we should not plan for success. We should expect our experiments to fail and then adapt after each crash.
Fly close to the ground. MacCready’s craft and pilot could crash safely because they were never more than 15 feet above ground. Design your experiments so that you can fail safely.
Contests and prizes can motivate innovators. As a boy, MacCready was keen to enter model building contests. Later he successfully took up the challenges of the Kremer prizes. He went on sponsor prize contests for other innovators. If you have a tough technical problem to solve then throw down a challenge. With any luck, smart thinkers will respond with radical solutions.
This post was previously published on destination-innovation.com.
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