Gossamer Flight

As a kid, I devoured the pages of Popular Science magazine and was fascinated by the quest for human-powered flight: Was a flying bicycle possible?

In the mid 1970s, I read that aerospace engineer Paul MacCready had assembled a team to build a large, lightweight, human-powered aircraft that could be rapidly repaired and redesigned. In 1977, after multiple iterations, cyclist Bryan Allen flew MacCready’s Gossamer Condor around a one-mile figure-eight course to win the first Kremer prize. Two years later, Allen flew MacCready’s improved Gossamer Albatross 22 miles across the English Channel to win the second Kremer prize.

Made with a carbon fiber frame and polystyrene ribs covered with transparent plastic film, each Gossamer aircraft had a long tapering wing behind a large horizontal stabilizer. Weighing less than the pilot-engine, the required power was only about 0.3 kW (or 0.4 hp). Currently, an outstanding Kremer prize is to fly a 26 mile marathon course in under an hour.

Bryan Allen powers and pilots Paul MacCready's Gossamer Albatross across the English Channel in 1979.

Bryan Allen powers and pilots Paul MacCready’s Gossamer Albatross across the English Channel in 1979.

Allen flies MacCready’s Gossamer Albatross II in NASA tests in 1980.

About John F. Lindner

John F. Lindner was born in Sleepy Hollow New York and educated at the University of Vermont and Caltech. He is a professor of physics and astronomy at The College of Wooster. He has enjoyed multiple yearlong sabbaticals at Georgia Tech, University of Portland, and University of Hawai'i. His research interests include nonlinear dynamics, celestial mechanics, and variable stars.
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