On This Day

Bryan Allen, 26-year-old professional cyclist from California, is shown before taking off in
the pedal-powered aeroplane Gossamer Albatross (AP).

On This Day: The Gossamer Albatross Flies Across the English Channel

June 12, 2009 02:00 AM
by Josh Katz
On June 12, 1979, the human-powered Gossamer Albatross aircraft crosses the English Channel in a historic flight.

The Flight of the Gossamer Albatross

Bryan Allen piloted the Gossamer Albatross, completing more than 22 miles in two hours and 49 minutes. The Seattle Museum of Flight wrote that Allen had to pedal aggressively the entire time to push the 70-pound propeller-engineered plane across the English Channel.

Paul MacCready, who grew up enamored of aviation, was the brains behind the Albatross. Time magazine said the contraption “looked like a giant dragonfly, with diaphanous wings spreading 96 ft. (2½ ft. more than a DC-9's) above skeletal workings of a bicycle.” Paul MacCready was always enamored of “unorthodox” aircraft, and the Albatross was no different.

The New York Times called MacCready “an awesomely accomplished inventor who studied circling hawks and vultures to figure out how to realize the loftiest dream of Leonardo da Vinci—inventing a human-powered flying machine.”

MacCready had already made history two years earlier when he entered a competition to make the first sustained human-powered flight. His Gossamer Condor, also piloted by Allen, met the task with a 7.5-minute flight.

MacCready’s company, AeroVironment Inc., moved into solar-powered flight following the successes of the Gossamer Condor and Gossamer Albatross. In 1980, the Gossamer Penguin initiated human-powered solar-fueled aviation with the use of photovoltaic cells. Then in 1981 the Solar Challenger traveled from France to England, a distance of 163 miles.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers named MacCready Engineer of the Century for his achievements, which were not limited to flight. His inventions also included, “tiny robotic planes used for military reconnaissance; power sources to keep atmospheric-monitoring devices aloft indefinitely; and an 18-foot, eerily realistic, flying dinosaur for an Imax movie,” according to The New York Times.

When MacCready died in August 2007, NPR interviewed pilot Bryan Allen about the inventor’s accomplishments. Allen said, “A lot of the things that Paul did are, I think, pointing towards a future of sustainability, and pointing toward a future of doing more with less.”

Background: Solar-powered flight

On Nov. 4, 1974, the first aircraft fueled by solar energy took off. Robert J. Boucher of AstroFlight, Inc., created the remote-controlled “Sunrise II,” which took off via catapult. AeroVironment and MacCready then took the lead to devise a “human-piloted, solar-powered aircraft,” NASA wrote.

Multimedia: MacCready’s inventions

Related Topic: Skydiver fulfills the dream of Leonardo da Vinci

On April 29, 2008, findingDulcinea reported that a Swiss daredevil successfully completed a jump with a parachute based on 523-year-old sketches of Leonardo Da Vinci. Olivier Vietti-Teppa dropped 2,000 feet and landed safely in the middle of a military airport in Payerne, near Geneva. Teppa “had been wearing a modern reserve parachute in case da Vinci’s design—made out of four triangles of fabric and with a pointed top—had failed to open,” according to Britain’s The Daily Mail.

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