Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

Human-powered airplane flew with local invention

In 1959, British industrialist Henry Kremer offered a huge prize to the inventor of the first flying machine to stay up five minutes or longer using only human power; it had to negotiate a course set by The Royal Aviation Society. Hundreds of aviation enthusiasts worldwide accepted the challenge. Twenty years later, the money was still unclaimed. Kremer kept adding more money to the prize that, in 1977, had grown to the British equivalent of $87,000.

That stirred furious activity worldwide. Paul MacCready was an aerodynamicist, a graduate of Cal Tech, president of AeroVironment Inc. of Pasadena, Calif., and a prize-winning glider pilot. In a telephone call to our son, Walt, MacCready said his human-powered plane would be piloted by a powerful bicycle racer who needed to monitor his pedaling performance.

He would use different rates to lift off, gain height, clear a 10-foot pylon, fly a half mile, make the difficult l80-degree turn, then fly back, clearing the pylon again and landing safely.

MacCready said, "I think your Pacemeter can help us."

Walt didn’t tell me about MacCready’s call. One morning on an early TV newscast, I heard that the next segment would show an attempt to fly an airplane with human power. I rushed to the phone to tell Walt. He said, "Hey, that might be that guy out in Pasadena."

He turned on his TV, and we stayed on the phone line and watched together. My heart pounded. Walt and his partner had planned and worked often at my dining table in their two years of developing, testing and patenting their Pacemeter. I proudly used one on my own bike.

The segment began, and there was that important little black Pacemeter mounted directly in front of the pilot, Bryan Allen. He was poised, ready to pedal the 70-pound airplane with its plastic wings spread 96 feet from tip to tip. Slowly and silently, at 7:37 a.m., the "Gossamer Condor" inched forward, its propeller whirling at the back, the rudder extended forward at the front. Allen, in a recumbent position, began his difficult task. The "bird" lifted and soared over the 10-foot pylon. We breathed easier during that next half-mile stretch and were breathless as he made the 180-degree turn.

Relaxed, I asked, "You provided the Pacemeter at no cost, I hope?"

"No, he sent his $70 check with the order."

Allen’s work was not finished. There was still that 10-foot pylon to clear. On a trial the day before, he was unable to clear it. No plane had ever flown so slowly. And no other plane was purposely made "flimsy" with balsa wood, nylon cord, piano wire, thin plastic film, Styrofoam, corrugated paper and the very lightest bicycle parts available. No plane had accomplished what we were seeing that moment.

On Aug. 23, 1977, 7? minutes after starting, aviation’s most sought-after feat was accomplished by MacCready’s "flying bicycle" with Allen pedaling.

Other attempts at human-powered flight were made with complicated structures that were time-consuming and expensive to replace after mishaps.

MacCready planned his "sloppy beast" to fly slowly and with "just the right amount of flimsy to fly at about 10 miles per hour." It had failed many times. That’s how they knew what to do next - they fixed what broke. Finally MacCready had earned the prize: 50,000 British pounds, the equivalent of $87,000.

And Walt said, "I was surprised that, in their desperate effort to reduce weight, our 9-ounce Pacemeter deserved the ride."

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