Paul MacCready Interview: Toward A Rational Use of Energy

Physicist Paul MacCready discusses the process of designing human-powered flying machines, the unexpected turn his career path took into aeronautical engineering, and the potential he sees for wider adoption of renewable energy sources.

| September/October 1981

  • 071 paul maccready interview - challenger in flight
    The solar-powered Solar Challenger in flight.
  • 071 paul maccready interview - 3 sitting on prototype
    Paul MacCready conduting a flutter test of Solar Challenger's tail section.
  • 071 paul maccready interview - 1 mccready collage
    Paul MacCready, designer of the human-powered Gossamer Albatross. 
  • 071 paul maccready interview - challenger pilot
    Colorado aviator Stephen Ptacek got MacCready's go-ahead to pilot the Solar Challenger for the France-to-England flight.
  • 071 paul maccready interview - 4 lifting off
    Pilot Janice Brown lifting off with Solar Challenger.

  • 071 paul maccready interview - challenger in flight
  • 071 paul maccready interview - 3 sitting on prototype
  • 071 paul maccready interview - 1 mccready collage
  • 071 paul maccready interview - challenger pilot
  • 071 paul maccready interview - 4 lifting off

Anyone who's ever read much Greek mythology is probably familiar with the legend of Daedalus, who flew from captivity in Crete on self-wrought wings with his son Icarus ...only to lose the boy in the sea when the youth soared too close to the sun and melted the wax that held his feathers in place.  

Now the fact that this bit of folklore has been with us for thousands of years indicates that humankind has long been taken with the idea of muscle-powered flight. Over the centuries, that vision has been pursued by scores of inquisitive and adventurous people.  

Today's Daedalus—the man who finally brought the age-old dream to lifegoes by the name of Dr. Paul MacCready, Jr and is known to most as the designer and builder of the pedal-powered Gossamer Albatross, which carried pilot/motor Bryan Allen across the English Channel, on June 12, 1979, to win the coveted Kremer £100,000 Cross-Channel Competition. Prior to that achievement, MacCready and his team claimed the original Kremer prize—a £50,000 award that had stood untouched for 18 years—by flying a human-powered craft over a one-mile course. And, as if these accomplishments aren't overwhelming in themselves, the California designer was also responsible for the construction of the first airplane to fly solely on sunlight—through the use of photovoltaic cells—and has recently developed a more sophisticated version of that aircraft: the Solar Challenger, piloted by, among others, Janice Brown.  

Knowing all this, you may be surprised to learn that Paul MacCready isn't an aerospace engineer on sabbatical from Boeing or McDonnell Douglas ...or that, in fact, he's never had any conventional aircraft design experience except what he picked up while working with model airplanes and gliders. In short, Paul has taken an approach to ultralight aircraft design that disregards nearly everything normally held "sacred" by those in the profession. Furthermore, he and his team have been able to implement their designs with a minimum ofmaterials and equipment, since they had neither the time nor the budget to utilize "big time" methods. (For example, Dr. MacCready employed a crude wing structure mounted on a Ford van to make flutter tests.)  

We think you'll discover (as MOTHER EARTH NEWS staffer Richard Freudenberger did while conducting this interview) that Paul MacCready's way of thinking and doing can be applied to a great many of the challenges that face us. In fact, we may find that it has a place in more and more of what we do, as our planet's resources slowly dwindle.  

PLOWBOY: I couldn't help noticing, when I came to see you this morning, that your place of business isn't an airplane hangar as I'd half expected. It's actually a modern, well-equipped office with a sizable staff. I take it, then, that you try to keep your job and your experimental aviation work separate?



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