Paul MacCready Interview: Toward A Rational Use of Energy

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The solar-powered Solar Challenger in flight.

Anyone who’s ever read much Greek mythology is probably
familiar with the legend
ofDaedalus, 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 bitof folklore has been with us for thousands ofyears 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 life
goes by the nameof Dr. Paul MacCready, Jr and is known to most as the
designer and builder of the pedal-powered
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 toflysolely on
sunlight–through the use
of photovoltaic cells–and has recently developed a
more sophisticated version
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
ofthinking 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
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?

MACCREADY: Actually, they’re somewhat
related. In 1971 I founded AeroVironment, Inc., a
diversified firm that currently deals in environmental
studies, alternative energy systems, and energy-related
products. That company is my bread and butter, so to speak.
But some of the work done in our aerosciences
division–especially that concerned with advanced
aerodynamics–goes hand in hand with many aspects of
the Gossamer aircraft projects, since the slow-flying
vehicles require special design considerations.

PLOWBOY: As I understand it, you received
your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics. At what
point did you become involved with the study of

MACCREADY: I didn’t have any formal
training in that field until I took an aeronautics course
at Cal Tech, while working on my master’s and found it
much more appealing than my former area of specialization.
To me, physics represents the fundamentals, and I believe
that studying it is an excellent scientific training
regimen. But I was interested in sailplanes at that time,
too, so it seemed sensible that I expand my area of study
to include aeronautics.

PLOWBOY: How did you get involved with

MACCREADY: Oh, I’ve been interested in
flight since I was a boy growing up in New Haven,
Connecticut. I started designing my own model gliders at
the age of 12, and by the time I was 18–just before
Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of the Second World
War–I’d competed in national model airplane
championships, and had also soloed in a conventional
single-engine aircraft. As an undergraduate at Yale, I
enrolled in the U.S. Navy flight training program, and at
the end of the war I had the opportunity to purchase a
surplus training glider, which I taught myself to fly with the help of some good friends from my
model-building days. In the years following–until
about 1958, when I finished my active involvement with
sailplanes– I owned several other craft and competed
regularly in national and international soaring meets.

My interest in meteorology helped maintain my fascination
with gliders, too. I remember in the summer of
’45–while living in Pensacola–watching cumulus
clouds turn into thunderstorms and thinking it would be fun
to play around with a sailplane in such complex currents.
Also, I found the gliders to be excellent
research-related devices, because they trigger ideas
about aerodynamic efficiency, airplane modifications, and
ways of working with the weather. They’re much more
challenging to handle than are powered aircraft.

PLOWBOY: So your gliding took on a
scientific cast and encouraged you to pursue an
aeronautical degree.

MACCREADY: Exactly. I originally wanted to
study meteorology, but Cal Tech didn’t have a program in
that, so I did my doctoral work in aeronautics. My
dissertation dealt with atmospheric turbulence. By the
time I obtained the degree I was very much involved in
weather modification, which I then took up as a
profession in the early 1950’s. I had no special interest
in the aerospace field and its big company atmosphere,
where I suspected one person couldn’t make a very relevant
contribution. Furthermore, I wasn’t enthusiastic about
limiting my work to classified military projects.

PLOWBOY: How did your career in
meteorology lead you into the development of human-powered

MACCREADY: Actually, my entering that
field of research was the result of a whole series
of events. To begin with, I resigned from Meteorology
Research, Inc. in 1970, feeling in need of a change, andafter forming a partnership with a relative–I bought
out a small catamaran manufacturing firm. Soon thereafter,
though, I started AeroVironment. And while that
corporation prospered, the boat business declined.

To make a long story short, we finally had to sell the
“cat” factory, but I was still saddled with a sizable debt
resulting from a loan I had countersigned while we were
trying to keep the jointly owned company afloat. It was
very annoying to have that obligation hanging over my head,
and it occurred to me that the simplest way to pay it off
would be to take a shot at the £50,000 Kremer Prize,
which was to be awarded to the first person or group to
make a successful controlled flight of a human-powered
aircraft under conditions set by the British Royal
Aeronautical Society. I was sure that I could win the
prize, and figured the $90,000 or so dollars it represented
would just about take care of my debt.

PLOWBOY: But surely your interest was
more than merely financial …

MACCREADY: Everyone seems to wish I’d
tackled human-powered flight in some great romantic spirit
for the cause of aviation pioneering, but what I told you
happens to be the truth. I had to make a sound business
decision: On one hand, most people wouldn’t consider
building a human-powered aircraft to be a realistic way to
try to earn money, but on the other, I believed there was a
darned good chance that the project would take just a
little work and consume only a few hours on evenings and
weekends, requiring quite a small investment for a very
handsome return.

Of course, the whole thing turned out to be much more
demanding than I’d hoped, but it also turned out to be much
more fun than I’d imagined! My family got involved
wholeheartedly, I made new and valuable friends, and I came
to enjoy solving the problems we encountered along the way.
In fact, I felt so positive about the project that–in
the midst of it–I began to wonder whether, if the
prize had suddenly been withdrawn, we would have continued
anyway. I have a feeling we would have.

Speaking from experience, though, the economic aspects of
any experimental endeavor simply can’t be ignored. There
are many good ideas around, and good people who are willing
to work to implement them, but unless there’s an existing
economic framework to make funding possible a research
project simply can’t survive. Realistically, the technical
portions of our initial human-powered flight effort
accounted for perhaps only 10% of the job. The remaining
90% was all a matter of business.

PLOWBOY: What about the people you work
with? Does it take a special breed to tackle the challenges
posed by experimental aviation work?

MACCREADY: Our circumstances are very
unusual, and the number of staffers that we can assimilate
each year is next to zero. You see, we have to have very
competent workers, but may need them for only two weeks
or two months. Therefore, we can’t often use solid citizens
who have full-time jobs, spouses, and children. Instead,
we employ hang-glider guys who are well qualified, but are
sort of living on the fringes of society. They’re mostly
unmarried and are available at short notice. Of course, we
do have a few establishment types who take on some
responsibilities–but can’t devote a whole lot of time
to the projects–plus a couple of retired people who
spend a good deal of time on the job.

PLOWBOY: The development of the Gossamer
Condor was the first task that your loosely knit
team tackled, wasn’t it?

MACCREADY: Yes, the Condor was
our initial success. It was a pedal-driven machine, and
Bryan Allen piloted it around a mile-long figure-eight
course at Shafter Airport here in California, to win the
Kremer £50,000 Competition, in August of 1977. Then,
in October 1978, the Royal Aeronautical Society officially
announced the establishment of a new contestthe
Kremer £100,000 Cross-Channel Competition–to
provide incentive for a human-powered flight between
England and France. We decided to go after that award, too,
and built the Gossamer Albatross, with sponsorship from Du
Pont. Bryan completed the cross-channel flight in June of

In order to have backup aircraft for the event, we
constructed two additional units: the Gossamer Albatross
II, which was later selected for use in NASA’s low-speed
flight research program, and the Gossamer
Penguinessentially a 3/4-scale version of the
Albatross–which we converted to electric drive early
in 1980 and powered solely with photovoltaic cells later in
the year. My youngest son, Marshall, performed the initial
sun-power tests, and then we made a two-mile record flight–with Janice Brown as pilot–on August 7, 1980.
Our newest craft is the Solar Challenger, a
lightweight, comparatively rugged airplane which is capable
of flying safely at high altitudes and derives all its
power from solar cells mounted on the upper surface of its
wings and horizontal rear stabilizer.

PLOWBOY: You mentioned your Du Pont
sponsorship. Don’t you find it ironic that you had to
rely on big business to achieve what’s widely regarded as a
“little guy’s” triumph?

MACCREADY: No, that’s not how I see it at
all, and for two reasons. First, we built the Albatross
before we ever got involved with Du Pont …but we were
using a lot of that company’s materials. That’s why we went
to the people there for sponsorship in the first place.
They, in turn, saw our project as a good showcase for some
of their products. It demonstrated that the modern Du Pont
materials were very light and strong, attributes which
will make them valuable in undertakings that might have
more practical applications than do human or solar-powered
airplanes. But our craft are just different enough to be
interesting and exciting, and the materials used in them
are much more likely to get publicity than would the same
substances transformed into, say, tops for garbage cans!

In the second place, the corporate sponsorship put our
projects on the map, so to speak. The Du Pont people worked
up press kits, made announcements, scheduled conferences,
and generally assured us well-observed events. And, of
course, that publicity has attracted attention to a number
of worthwhile projects. In the case of the solar-powered
airplanes in particular, we’ve been able to demonstrate
dramatically that photovoltaic cells do work. It’s my
hope that our efforts may help promote the ongoing attempts
to reduce their cost over the next few years.

PLOWBOY: So you really don’t see any
direct practical use for the aircraft you’ve developed? Not even as short-hop commuting planes to be used in
uncongested areas?

MACCREADY: Let’s put it this way: Flying a
human-powered airplane was like climbing Mount Everest: it represented a challenge that’s captivated humankind
for centuries. But it wouldn’t make sense to build a hotel
up on top of the world’s tallest peak and call it a
business, and it’s the same with the plane. We may actually
have put roadblocks in the way of the development of a
commercial human-powered airplane, because we’ve taken all
the significant prizes, and–while doing so–have
demonstrated that the vehicle capable of accomplishing the
feat is so delicate that it really can’t be marketed.

The same goes for the Challenger. It’s a symbol. The
solar-powered craft is a dreadful airplane. We had to make
so many compromises to permit it to fly on photovoltaic
cells that it’s really just an ugly duckling. Of course,
it’s more rugged than the Albatross, and it can fly through
the turbulence that’s encountered at higher altitudes. But,
in order to enable it to operate on solar power, we had to
use a very wide wing and a huge stabilizer–to allow
adequate surface for the cells–and a gigantic
propeller. All of that made for a very peculiar structure
that flies slowly and isn’t easy to control. Hence the
need for a skilled and lightweight pilot like Janice Brown.
No, I doubt that even one ten-thousandth of a percent of
the solar cells being used ten years from now will be
powering airplanes.

PLOWBOY: Then you do believe that
photovoltaic panels can be put to more practical use in
other areas?

MACCREADY: Oh, most definitely. The
biggest obstacle to their widespread acceptance is cost. At
$10 a watt, or whatever the price is now, they’re not
really affordable. But the goal set for the Department of
Energy’s so-called Solar Ray project was 77¢ a watt by
1986, figured in 1980 dollars. From what I understand,
progress is being made. The breakthroughs are there, the
cost of raw materials and production is decreasing,
and–on the whole–the field is in pretty good
shape. Now that doesn’t mean all the obstacles have been
overcome, it just indicates that the industry is working
toward achieving what it has set out to do. In fact, some
of the corporations that were involved with the program
from the beginning are now putting a lot of their own money
into it and not sharing their data. I take that to
mean they’re really onto something. It’s a very good sign.

PLOWBOY: You mentioned the figure of 77¢ a
watt. If I’m not mistaken, that’s less expensive than most
present utility rates. Do you think the photovoltaic cell
may provide the answer to our energy problems?

MACCREADY: No, we shouldn’t make the
mistake of viewing solar electricity as a panacea. However,
we do know that the cost of petroleum-based energy can only
go up as supplies dwindle, and photovoltaic power is the
one alternative I know of that is assuredly going to be
inexpensive, by comparison, within the next five or six

PLOWBOY: Do you think the day will come
when many people will–as some do today–have
rooftop photovoltaic arrays that’ll allow them to produce
their own electricity on an individual basis?

MACCREADY: I’m not convinced of the
practicality of the notion that each person should become
his or her own little utility company.

PLOWBOY: Are you, then, in favor of
community-scale solar power plants?

MACCREADY: Yes, I am. Utility systems were
formed, in the first place, to enable power to be generated
centrally and efficiently and transmitted to the public
through a standardized grid. If I set out to avoid the use
of fossil fuels, I’d prefer to have a solar power plant
located in a desert region, where there’s plenty of sun,
rather than to rely on my own often cloudy area’s
intermittent sunlight to supply my household.

PLOWBOY: So you’d agree that there’s a
happy medium somewhere between a huge power monopoly and a
perhaps inefficient, small-scale, individual
energy-generating plant. But don’t you recognize the fear
that a utility of even modest size might tend to get, well
…overbearing, especially if it’s the only source of
available energy in an area?

MACCREADY: There’s always the danger that
its customers will become overly dependent upon the
utility, but that would be their own fault. If we all
actively practiced energy conservation and didn’t live
lifestyles that are literally sustained by the power
companies, we couldn’t be manipulated by the fear of having
to get along with limited or no-electrical service for
short periods.

PLOWBOY: You sound like an advocate of

MACCREADY: Yes, if that’s what you want to
call it. I’m sure you realize that this whole energy crisis
we’re going through involves much more than just the cost
of oil. Part of the problem is that our society has come to
expect instant gratification. It’s no wonder that the
average citizen expects a quick fix to the high price of
gasoline, without giving a thought to why the fuel is
becoming more expensive in the first place.

I’m convinced that the real price of
gasoline–including the cost of locating and
unearthing it, processing it, and transporting it; the
expense of maintaining a military presence to insure our
continued access to foreign supplies; and that of making
investments in developing replacements for the
future–is probably closer to $10 a gallon than to the
$1.40 or so we’re paying for it now.

Furthermore, our energy dependence is costing us in other
ways. You might almost say we’re spending our nation’s
future. And America’s world position is now dominated by
what goes on in the Middle East, with our foreign policy
pretty much made up of what we have to do to respond to
real or imagined threats. We’ve come to the point where an
oil-rich sheik has more power than any U.S.
senator–and perhaps even more than the
President–to affect our national attitude toward one
country or another with regard to the sale of weapons, the
sharing of technology, and so forth. We’ll never be masters
of our own destiny as long as we’re hooked on this fuel we
burn. If we were producing all the energy we need, our
foreign policy could be based on logic rather than fear. We
could work with these other nations, and perhaps do good
things with them, in a sensible manner.

PLOWBOY: I’m sure there aren’t any simple
answers, but in which course of action do you think the
solutions lie?

MACCREADY: We have to start by readjusting
our way of thinking, and that will require some bold
initiative on the part of those who have influence. I have
a strong feeling that corporations, individuals, and
organizations like your magazine, for example, can be much
more effective if they’re not dependent upon government; politics has a way of tying the hands of those it
“helps.” Even Carter–who, I think, made a sincere
effort to put a healthy tax on gasoline so we wouldn’t
squander it–couldn’t accomplish his goal because of the
pressure he was under.

PLOWBOY: Then you feel that raising the
price of fuel would be an acceptable way for us–in
effect–to force ourselves to develop alternatives
while saving our resources?

MACCREADY: Yes, I do, although it wouldn’t
be easy to arrive at a cost that would encourage
conservation without causing too much suffering. But could
you imagine the fantastic cut in petroleum use we’d see if
everyone were paying $10 a gallon? And, regardless of how
it comes about, both short- and long-term energy
conservation should be among our top national priorities,
right along with the development of reliable petroleum
substitutes. Unfortunately, right now conservation isn’t as
good a business as is consumption.

However, we must get accustomed to the fact that energy
doesn’t come–and never should have come–cheap.
Do you realize that gasoline is still so inexpensive in
this country that a new car operated over three years
costs–including depreciation, interest payments,
insurance, maintenance, fuel, and so forth–about 38¢
to 50¢ a mile, and that only 12% of that is spent on
gasoline? We’re paying a much lower fuel cost per mile of
driving than people in Europe paid 25 or 50 years ago!
Energy is very inexpensive in the U.S., and as a result
we’re devouring the earth’s fossil fuel
resources–which we can financially afford to
do–in great amounts, and making petroleum products
terribly expensive for the rest of the world.

PLOWBOY: And for future generations.

MACCREADY: Oh, your grandchildren will
likely find it incredible–or even
sinful–that you burned up a gallon of gasoline to
fetch a pack of cigarettes! Nonetheless, we still go on
believing that, miraculously, things will get better. In
fact, there’s a chance that–with the glut of fuel on
the market right now gasoline prices might be cut slightly
…which will probably prompt many people to go out and buy
bigger cars, because that’s what Madison Avenue has told
them is macho. And that sort of reaction eventually results
in a needless waste of petroleum and still higher
prices at the pumps.

PLOWBOY: Do you think the higher prices
reflect the oil industry’s desire to make an unreasonable

MACCREADY: I’ve had several people
question me on that, as well as on the possibility that Big
Oil is buying out the manufacturers of solar cells in order
to stifle any competition. However, I think that the
petroleum industry is doing just what you or I would do if
we owned a business dealing in a dwindling and
unreplenishable resource and had money to invest: We’d be
looking for alternatives. Such firms have bought out
virtually all the major solar cell companies and are
pouring tens of millions of dollars into them. They
certainly wouldn’t be spending that kind of money on a
technology that they were trying to suppress.

I’m afraid that a good deal of this mistrust of industry is
the result of yellow journalism on the part of some
popular–and irresponsible–tabloid publications. Such
newspapers know that a lot of their articles are
out-and-out frauds, but they also know what the
public will buy. Unfortunately, each unfounded article
erodes a little more of the mind of whoever digests it
…and those same readers must help decide whom to elect,
whether nuclear power should be used, and other very subtle
and difficult questions. It’s too bad we can’t figure out
some way to bring a class action suit against the
publishers of sensationalist newsstand rags for literally
damaging the thinking ability of millions of people!

PLOWBOY: All right, you’ve told us how you
view our energy problems and proposed some ways in which we
might be able to deal with them. But how do you expect an
average American to cope with $10-a-gallon gasoline
when he or she might not now be able to afford a
balanced meal every night of the week? Surely you’ve got to
consider the fact that our society must continue to
function–without, if possible, causing widespread
suffering–in the midst of any changes that must be

MACCREADY: Exactly. And that’s why it’s
important that we take our search for alternatives
seriously, so we won’t be caught short if an emergency
situation should arise. Whether the solution lies in
developing a practical fuel or in building a new generation
of automobiles, we should be working toward it
now, not after the fact.

PLOWBOY: Do you think that the auto
industry is making a concerted effort toward developing
practical high-mileage vehicles?

MACCREADY: Oh, without a doubt. I’m very
optimistic about the next ten years in the automotive
industry. Its engineers and designers are really focusing
on doing some very good things, such as using new
lightweight materials. Of course, the changes don’t happen
overnight. If a firm wanted, for example, to make a hood
from one of the newer composite materials, it would take
many millions of dollars of research and development money
to decide what to do, how to do it, how well the material
would endure, and whether the change would really be more
economical over the long term than the sheet-metal method
it’s replacing. And then there’s always the chance that the
public won’t accept a new idea, regardless of how efficient
or inexpensive it is, because it’s not what people are used
to. In which case the company could go under for lack of
sales. That particular sword-of-Damocles threat is a sure
impediment to creativity and innovation.

PLOWBOY: I imagine, though, that it’d be
pretty difficult to come up with an alternative method of
bringing about change. After all, Detroit’s been going at
it in the plodding fashion you describe–for the most
part successfully–for 80 years!

MACCREADY: Yes, but I don’t think the
world is going to let us make the kind of slow,
well-researched decisions we’ve made in the past. We can no
longer afford to spend years between the conception of a
new development and its appearance. We might better put our
resources and efforts toward vehicles that are more
versatile, more modular, and maybe even more expensive at
first, but that wouldn’t take all that long to adapt to
suit changing circumstances.

PLOWBOY: And how might that sort of
breakthrough come about?

MACCREADY: Again, we’d have to start by
reorienting our method of thinking. The May issue of
Scientific American contains an excellent article
on cars of the future and what sorts of changes will be
required to bring the Corporate Average Fuel Economy up to
the 80-mile-per-gallon figure. But even that piece assumes
that we’ll work with an established element and try to
coax, push, and develop it into something better. However,
there’s an opposing school of thought that’s downright
foreign to the evolutionary way of designing things, and
its premise–in this case–can be based
on one question: What is the minimum that’s really
required to move someone from here to there? By focusing on
a clearly defined goal, a designer tends to get
less tied up with peripheral matters or extrapolation from
a known element, all of which can obscure the most direct
path toward the objective.

I’ll relate a little anecdote that illustrates this point
very well. I was talking with my ten-year-old son about the
idea of putting a needle on water and having it float,
supported by the liquid’s surface tension. Now a very tiny
needle is easy to float, but I asked him how to put the
biggest possible needle down and still have it
float. I was really hoping he’d come up with a way in which
it could be lowered without disturbing the integrity of the
liquid’s uppermost layer.

My son’s answer was refreshing: Freeze the water, place the
needle on it, then let the ice melt. Now whether it would
work or not isn’t the issue here. The point is that I would
never have thought of that, because in my youth I’d been
conditioned to focus on the idea of physically
setting the needle down when performing the experiment.
This youngster, though, had never seen the trick done, so
he was starting with a clean slate.

PLOWBOY: And you believe that sort of
unprejudiced thinking could be applied–to good
effect–by automotive designers?

MACCREADY: I don’t see why not, though
admittedly it’d be difficult to change such a
well-established industry in a short period of time. And
there’d be a lot of public relations work required to
overcome negative consumer reaction to a vehicle that would
necessarily be radically different from what we’re used to.

PLOWBOY: What other alternatives do you
see? Is it possible that the car of the future
won’t be developed by one of the Detroit
juggernauts, but by a whole new enterprise?

MACCREADY: That’s an interesting question.
I’m personally involved in this area, you see, because I
happen to be co-president of the International
Human-Powered Vehicle Association (IHPVA), an organization
that sponsors annual races here in Los Angeles. Nearly
everyone who’s worked on our aircraft has also spent some
time on the research and development of these
pedaled devices, and I find the field extremely exciting
and very promising. It’s difficult to say where it might
lead, though the transportation industry is definitely
taking a good look at what we’re doing.

PLOWBOY: Do the bikes have that much in
common with cars?

MACCREADY: I’m not talking about typical
bicycles. Human powered vehicles are built in many
different configurations. Some have four wheels,
some three or two. Many are bicycle frames with fairings,
but the more radical ones use custom built alloy frames
with fiberglass or mylar coverings, or composite bodies
that have integral strength characteristics. They can carry
one or several riders in a variety of positions, depending
upon the design of the machine, and their low weight and
highly aerodynamic shape means that they’ll move down the
road at 30 miles per hour with a human input of only about
1/4 horsepower. Some of the fastest ones can easily break
the legal speed limit.

Now the HPV’s that win the races are, of course, not ideal
street vehicles because they’re too fast and offer a
minimum of protection and visibility …but I’m sure it’s
possible to design a good vehicle, halfway between a bike
and a small car, that would be suitable for commuting at
speeds of 35 miles per hour or less. It would be very
inexpensive, and much safer than a bicycle or a moped
because it would enclose the driver in a protective pocket
with a roll bar and side guards.

PLOWBOY: Do you have any plans for
developing a road vehicle program that might parallel your
aircraft efforts?

MACCREADY: Well, right now I’m spending
some time studying HPV’s, talking to a lot of people, and
drawing up possible configurations. As I said, my personal
interest–besides seeing the sport grow–is in
the development of practical, street-usable vehicles. I see
the IHPVA competition as much more than just a bunch of
people out for the challenge of racing. The world can’t
afford, any longer, to use so much of its mineral resources
and fossil fuels to provide transportation. We’ve got to
find a way to do the same job with a lot less material and
energy. Human-powered vehicles help show what
can be done, just as our airplane experiments have
demonstrated the potential of focusing on the
efficient use of power.

I’d like to see a mass-produced vehicle developed that
retails at around $500–which is about the same price
as a good racing bike–and permits people to handle
all their ordinary commuting and shopping tasks except
those requiring freeway driving. Are you aware that nearly
75% of all car trips involve distances of less than ten
miles? Imagine the fuel we’d save if such vehicles could
handle all of that travel!

PLOWBOY: But wouldn’t HPV’s be limited by

MACCREADY: Not necessarily. You see, these
vehicles could easily use a small auxiliary gasoline or
electric motor without making much of an impact on our
energy supplies. Not only would the machine be capable of
perhaps 500 miles per gallon, but it might use only 50 or
75 pounds of material, since that’s really the minimum
required to move a person, safely and comfortably, down a
hard-surfaced road in low to moderate winds at the speeds
we’re talking about. And mass production is a key factor,
too, because it saves money and cuts waste to a minimum.
Cars are sold now at a little over $2.00 a pound, up from
the $1.00 a pound they used to be. So if the HPV weighs 50
pounds and sells for $500, it should certainly be
profitable to mass-produce using the kind of space-age
technology that Detroit currently applies to the assembly
of automobiles.

PLOWBOY: How practical do you think the
vehicles would really be on today’s roads?

MACCREADY: Oh, there’s a lot of negativism
to overcome in doing something like this. The
transportation system we grew up with has developed over
the last 80 or 100 years. It involves certain kinds of
roads, certain distances between home and work, certain
parameters for car design, and even special procedures for
obtaining drivers’ licenses. So when you try to inject
something foreign into the system, it doesn’t fit very
well. However, if the HPV’s were first introduced into an
area where they likely would be
accepted–perhaps a community such as Davis,
California, where bicycles are already used on a large
scale for transportation–they’d be assimilated more
easily. It’s just a matter of gaining public acceptance.

PLOWBOY: All right, at this point you’re
involved in the human-powered vehicle movement, but you
haven’t begun any serious prototype construction efforts.
What projects are you currently undertaking? Your
alternative aviation triumphs are going to be tough acts to

MACCREADY: Well, we’re planning a
Paris-to-London flight with the Solar Challenger,
which I’m sure you’re aware of. By the time this interview
goes to press, it will have–we hope–already
occurred. We’re using a new, more powerful motor
system–and flying in the summer–so the results
should be better than those logged during previous flights.
The total distance is between 160 and 220
miles depending on our route–and 22 of those
will be over water, so we plan to maintain an altitude of
about 14,000 feet in order to allow a 33-mile glide path
should mechanical difficulties arise. It’s all a great
logistics headache, frankly, and we want to do it in as
simple a manner as we can, because even though it’s a
huge project it doesn’t have a large budget.

PLOWBOY: One final question: Have you ever
considered why you’ve been so successful in both human- and
solar-powered flight when others haven’t? Can you chalk it
up to talent, determination, hard work, luck, or any
combination of those?

MACCREADY: First and foremost, I had a
clear goal. I knew what my motives were, and I didn’t
merely extrapolate from a previous position in an attempt
to arrive at an answer. Looking back, I can see what a
benefit it was to me that I never had any conventional
aircraft structural design experience. Every other serious
team did, and they all made craft that looked pretty much
like standard airplanes except that they were lighter and
less complex. I’m beginning to find a lot more that’s
admirable in the airplane projects than I thought at first,
simply because they reinforced my thought process. They
taught me to name a goal from the outset, and then to
ignore any and all notions that weren’t directly concerned
with the job at hand.

EDITOR’S NOTE: On July 7, 1981 Dr. MacCready’s
Solar Challengerpilotedby Stephen Ptacek–did
indeed accomplish the hoped-for English Channel
crossing. It covered the 230 miles (actual flight distance)
from Cormeilles-en-Vexin, France to Manston, England in 5
hours and 23 minutes and achieving a maximum speed of 47
MPH. “If solar cells can carry a man from France to
England,” MacCready commented, “it proves they have muscle
and are useful for more than just wristwatches.”

A detailed account of Paul MacCready’s
human-powered flight exploits has recently been
published by the Houghton Mifflin Company:
Odyssey by MortonGrosser(a member of
Albatross team) retails for $14.95 and
be available at your local bookstore.