Paul MacCready

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Paul MacCready

Paul MacCready (born 1925), known as the "father of human-powered flight," first gained fame when he won the Kremer Prize for inventing an aircraft powered solely by human effort. He went on to develop a solar-powered plane and car and a radio-controlled replica of a giant pterodactyl. MacCready helped develop the Impact demonstrator electric vehicle, which, in 1991, inspired California's zero-emissions mandate.

Paul MacCready was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on September 29, 1925. His father was a doctor, and his mother was a nurse. MacCready had a learning disability, dyslexia, about which he later said in an interview with Discover magazine, "It keeps my mind jumping. It also gives me a short attention span, which forces me to really focus on things that are important." Small, shy, and a poor athlete as a child, MacCready collected moths and butterflies and built model airplanes. "I think kids do better if they have a hobby, a topic they know better than anybody else," he noted.

By the age of 13, MacCready was building flying machines, including autogiros, helicopters, and ornithopters. Three years later he had a pilot's license. "That really gave me confidence in myself," he recalled. At age 20, MacCready took up glider plane flying, called soaring. "Unlike with conventional aircraft, this was pure, quiet, birdlike flight. It was my first insight into how technology could be combined with the natural world," he explained to Discover.

At the end of World War II, MacCready trained as a Navy pilot. He completed his bachelor's degree in physics from Yale University in 1947. At the California Institute of Technology, he earned a master's degree in physics and a Ph.D. in aeronautics in 1952. While still in school, MacCready continued to practice soaring. He won the U.S. National Soaring Championship in 1948, 1949, and 1953. In 1956, he became the first American to win the World Soaring Championship. MacCready pioneered wave soaring, in which a sailplane uses strong lifting currents of air to reach extreme heights. He also invented the MacCready speed ring, an instrument still used by glider pilots to select the best flight speed between updrafts. MacCready stopped competing in 1956, after realizing the dangers of the sport.

Marriage and a Career

In 1957, MacCready married Judy Leonard, the daughter of one of his soaring friends. They later had three sons, Parker, Tyler, and Marshall. MacCready was ready to begin his career as an engineer but was not impressed by the way standard aerospace firms got things done. "Such places foster by-the-book thinking, a lockstep way of approaching a problem," he said in Discover. MacCready founded his own company, Meteorology Research Inc., a business specializing in flying small planes into clouds to try to affect the amount of rainfall they produce. He was the first to use small aircraft to study storm interiors. "We got pretty good at creating lightning, but there wasn't much of a market for it," he noted.

MacCready sold Meteorology Research Inc. in 1971. He soon founded AeroVironment in Monrovia, California, to develop renewable energy sources (like wind and solar power) because he was concerned with how quickly people were using up the planet's resources.

A Bad Loan Leads to Great Discoveries

In 1976, MacCready found himself $100,000 in debt after guaranteeing a loan in 1970 to his brother-in-law, who had developed a scheme for manufacturing fiber glass catamaran sailboats. Wanting to get out of debt, MacCready remembered an 18-year-old challenge conceived by British industrialist Henry Kremer. The first person to take off using only the muscle power of the pilot, clear a 10-foot hurdle, and complete a 1.15-mile-long figure-eight course using human-powered flight would win $100,000. When his family was driving across the country on vacation MacCready watched hawks and turkey vultures soaring in circles overhead, using updrafts. He calculated a bird's flight speed and its turning radius by estimating its banking angle and using a watch to time how long it took to make a 360-degree turn. He then realized that as long as the weight stayed the same, an airplane's wings could get bigger and bigger. The flight speed would decrease, but so would the power needed to make the plane fly. In this way a trained athlete could power the plane.

In 1977, MacCready and his colleagues at AeroVironment created the Gossamer Condor, with 96-foot wings of aluminum tubing, corrugated cardboard, and balsa wood, made rigid with piano wire, and covered with a thin layer of Mylar (polyester film). MacCready used his sons, then teenagers, as test pilots. Bryan Allen, a bicycle racer and hang-glider pilot, flew the Condor around the Kremer course, earning MacCready a place in history. The Condor won Kremer's prize and earned MacCready the nickname "the father of human-powered flight." The craft is now displayed in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. "I think it was a milestone, leading toward what I still don't know. But Charles Lindbergh's flight didn't add anything to the knowledge of aviation. It made other things happen, but it was really just a symbol," noted MacCready in an interview with Science '86.

In 1979, the Gossamer Albatross flew across the English Channel to earn MacCready a second Kremer prize of $213,000. The following year he constructed the Gossamer Penguin, which made the first climbing flight using solar cells.

MacCready had already been named Engineer of the Century by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers when, in 1981, his Solar Challenger reached 11,000 feet and flew 163 miles from France to an air force base in England, powered only by the 16,128 solar cells attached to the wings. He had invented the first piloted sun-powered plane.

In 1983, MacCready designed and built the 70-pound Bionic Bat, a 22-mile-per-hour plane that won two Kremer speed prizes the following year for flying a one-mile course in less than three minutes. Its propeller was driven by the pilot, with help from an electric motor that ran off 16 rechargeable flashlight batteries; the pilot charged them before takeoff by pedaling a generator.

A Dinosaur Flew

In 1986, another MacCready creation flew high over Death Valley, California, while being photographed for the Smithsonian Institution's IMAX film On the Wing. It was a realistic, radio-controlled, computer-brained replica of the largest creature ever to have flown, the pterodactyl, which became extinct, along with the dinosaurs, about 65 million years ago. MacCready had been commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution and the Johnson Wax Company to bring it back at a cost of $500,000. Considering the practicality of QN, the name for the model, MacCready noted in Science '86, "Sometimes if you're lucky and you choose the right goals, it's enough just to know that something worked. I am not a philosopher, nor am I intellectually gifted. There are lots of people around with more talent. You can do all kinds of things if you just plunge ahead. It doesn't mean you're any good at them, but you can be good enough. It's really pretty absurd. People look at me like I am some kind of genius."

A Solar-Powered Car

MacCready designed a solar-powered car, the Sunraycer, for General Motors. In 1987, the Sunraycer won the first Solar Challenge race, crossing Australia, (a distance of 1,867 miles), and winning against 23 competitors, on the equivalent of five gallons of gasoline. The sleek, teardrop shaped General Motors Sunraycer averaged 41.6 miles per hour to finish two and a half days ahead of the second-place entry. GM showed the Sunraycer at 269 events before turning it over to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. GM was so happy with AeroVironment's performance that it bought 15 percent of the company.

MacCready convinced GM that it would be possible to make a practical electric car. GM then asked MacCready's firm, AeroVironment, to build a concept electric car for the company. The Impact was an experimental, battery-powered two-seater with the pickup of a sports car and the driving range to satisfy most urban commuters. In 1991, it stimulated California's zero-emissions mandate. The Impact later became available to consumers as the EV1.

In the mid-1990s, MacCready felt that people needed to take control of technology by setting goals to produce economical, energy-efficient vehicles. He also felt it important to explore the effects of the rapidly expanding human population on the world's resources and creatures.

AeroVironment Worked with NASA

AeroVironment developed the remote-controlled, 120-foot-span, solar-powered Pathfinder Plus, which reached 80,000 feet, far higher than any previous propeller aircraft. Pathfinder Plus was one of a number of vehicles developed with NASA support by AeroVironment. Another, the 206-foot Centurion, started test flights in late 1998. Though MacCready had little involvement with these vehicles, his vision and persistence made their success possible. His company also created Helios, a regenerative-fuel-cell-powered aircraft that could stay up at altitudes of 50,000 to 70,000 feet for months at a time. Helios could perform stratospheric communications relay functions and monitor global climate change. The Helios could be used for communications, imaging, reconnaissance, and positioning. The AeroVironment team is also working on micro air vehicles, palm-size battery-powered crafts equipped with tiny video cameras that could provide real-time reconnaissance for the military.

"I may have found a way to make exercise addicting," MacCready told Discover, in 1999, describing his Micro Gym, a pocket-sized exercise machine with a pulse meter that vibrates when the user reaches an optimal heart rate. "Just enough exercise to get that rush of endorphins that will make you want to do it again," explained MacCready. "Wouldn't that be a great service to humanity?"

Concerned With the Environment and Technology

In the late 1990s, MacCready cut back on his direct involvement with AeroVironment's projects. He spends much of his time speaking to the public about issues that concern him. He tells schoolchildren to search for the answers themselves and to trust only their own conclusions. He lectures adults about technology and the need to protect the environment. He has been studying bird flight with soaring enthusiasts in an organization called TWITT (The Wing Is the Thing) and has been working on placing a two-gram video camera on the head of a pigeon or a parrot to view the Earth from above. MacCready has also been working on the Owl, his design for an affordable two-seater plane, allowing commuters to fly to work instead of drive.

As early as 1986, MacCready lamented people's reliance on technology. "People leave everything to this growing technology they think is going to solve all their problems. They lose motivation and imagination. The world is full of so many interesting things, I can't understand why kids just sit around bored all the time watching TV."

MacCready still has mixed feelings about technology, although he has devoted his life to it. "Technology can disconnect us from life. E-mail lets us work faster, but somehow we have less time to sit, digest, and enjoy. Cars give us wonderful mobility while they erode our motivation to walk, exercise, and meet our neighbors," he lamented in a 1999 interview with Design News. Of the human mind, MacCready says that right now it is "the most powerful force on earth," but admits that the number of things people can do that computers cannot do is shrinking. "Technology in perspective and under control is great, but as a master it's worrisome," he admonishes.

MacCready encourages students to develop thinking skills. "They don't have the limiting factor of expertise," he says. "I encourage them to unleash their minds." Concerning education MacCready points out, "Students are rewarded for the right answer, not for learning from mistakes, nor for seeing multiple sides to an issue and comprehending the big picture, and definitely not for asking a new question. We need people able to perceive reality and contemplate our future options as civilization changes faster and faster. We need a nation of wolves and revolutionaries, but the schools are giving us sheep."

Further Reading

Taylor, Richard L., The First Human-Powered Flight: The Story of Paul B. MacCready, Jr. and His Airplane, the Gossamer Condor, Watts Franklin, 1995.

Design News, March 1, 1999.

Discover, September 1999.

Popular Science, March 1986.

Science '86, April 1986.

Time, June 11, 1990. □