This Week in History: June 12, 1979

MacCready-Gossamer-Albatross-Inflight

First Human Powered Flight across the English Channel

Shortly after dawn one day last week, a strange contraption teetered down a quay below the chalky cliffs at Folkestone, England. It looked like a giant dragonfly, with diaphanous wings spreading 96 ft. (2 1/2 ft. more than a DC-9’s) above skeletal workings of a bicycle: a seat, pedals and a chain that powered a plastic propeller. Inside the translucent shell of the 75-lb. flying machine sat 140-lb. Bryan Allen, 26, a bespectacled bean pole from Tulare, Calif., garbed in running shorts and leather cycling shoes, plastic crash helmet, a red life jacket around his bare chest.

Just 2 hrs. and 49 min. later, Allen and his Gossamer Albatross touched down on a beach at Cap Gris-Nez, France, 23 watery miles away. Only last August, three Americans had landed in a Normandy wheat field after the world’s first transatlantic voyage in a helium balloon. Allen’s odyssey was far shorter, but every bit as impressive, perhaps more so. The flight earned not only the coveted $210,000 prize offered by British Industrialist Henry Kremer but also a niche in aviation history for the first muscle-powered flight across the English Channel.

The feat was an inspirational diversion from more serious matters. TRIUMPH OF THE PEDALER OF THE SKY, said Paris’ France-Soir. THE REVENGE OF IC-ARUS, judged Communist L’Humanite. One British cartoonist showed a Frenchman exclaiming, as Gossamer Albatross approached: “Mon dieu, there really must be a petrol shortage in England.” U.S. Ambassador in London Kingman Brewster could not resist telling a jammed post-flight press conference: “Some have said this is the most constructive solution to the energy crisis we’ve seen.”

The brains behind Albatross was designer Paul MacCready, 53, an aeronautical engineer from Pasadena, Calif. His foot still in a cast from a jogging accident a few weeks ago, MacCready mused about his fragile bird: “It’s a specialized thing, so large, so flimsy, in order to be low-powered enough for man to propel, but it certainly does alter one’s perspective of what man is capable of, both in design and actual powering of things.”

For MacCready, a glider pilot who became America’s first international soaring champion in 1956, the triumph was a reprise. Two years ago, another of his pedal-powered craft, Gossamer Condor, completed a 1.15-mile, figure-eight course in Shafter, Calif., to win an $86,000 Kremer prize that had eluded aeronautical designers for nearly two decades. Condor, which was also piloted by Allen, now rests in the Smithsonian Institution.

Odyssey Of The Albatross A Yank pedals over the English Channel in a space-age bike. Time, 0040781X, 6/25/1979, Vol. 113, Issue 26  http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edb&AN=53524883&site=eds-live

To learn more about the designer, Paul MacCready…

 

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