Aeronautics Innovator Paul MacCready (1925-2007)

The brilliant inventor who gave the world such remarkable achievements as the first human-powered aircraft has passed away. Paul MacCready, an innovator of all manner of aerodynamic vehicles died last week of an undisclosed ailment at the age of 81. He was a man ahead of his time.

MacCready first expressed his passion for flying machines at the age of 15, when he won a U.S. competition to build the best flying model of an airplane. It would be far from his last victory in major invention contests. According to an account by the Academy of Achievement, a non-profit museum of the arts and sciences in Washington, D.C., MacCready entered the Henry Kremer Prize competition, sponsored by the Royal Aeronautical Society, in 1977 because he needed the £50 000 award to offset a business debt incurred by a relative. The prize for the first person to prove human-powered sustainable flight was possible had lain unclaimed for 18 years before MacCready's Gossamer Condor took the honor with a one-man propulsion system able to fly for 1.15 miles.

MacCready came back two years later to win another prize (of £100 000) when a pilot powered his Gossamer Albatross across the English Channel. Later, he even took the third of the Kremer Prizes with his battery-assisted Bionic Bat, when it set a record for human-powered air speed. Continuing on this path, MacCready designed the Gossamer Penguin, the world's first successful solar-powered airplane, and the Solar Challenger, which awakened the public to the possibilities of solar energy. In 1981, the Challenger flew from Paris to Canterbury, England, a distance of 163 miles, rising to an altitude of 11 000 feet.

MacCready was even the person responsible for a minor craze in the Eighties, when he created a working life-size replica of a pterodactyl, a prehistoric dinosaur with a 36-foot wingspan. His remote-controlled flying model can be seen in the IMAX film "On the Wing."

In 1987, applying his knowledge of low-energy, high-output aerodynamic vehicles to use on the ground, MacCready's team designed the solar-powered Sunraycer for General Motors, to compete in the first competition to cross 1867 miles of Australian highway, from Darwin to Adelaide, the Solar Challenge. The Sunraycer led from start to finish, running at an average speed of 41.6 mph. This success led MacCready to work on a line of new electric-powered cars for General Motors, under the name of the EV1 project in the Nineties.

MacCready founded the firm AeroVironment (AV) in 1971, which specializes in unmanned aerial vehicles, among other things. According to his corporate bio, he received many honors throughout his life, including the Engineer of the Century award by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the NASA Public Service Grand Achievement Award, Aviation Week's Aerospace Laureate, and Time magazine's "100 Greatest Minds of the 20th Century." In 1991, he was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame.

Contributors to a special section for condolences on the AV website referred to the man as a cherished inspiration. "I will deeply miss Paul MacCready; he was a true friend," said Wally E. Rippel, the principal power electronics engineer of Tesla Motors, a creator of electric sports cars.

"More than any one I know, he was aware of the dangers we all face due to environmental abuse, and he was aware of the possibilities for solving these problems," said Rippel, who worked with MacCready on the EV1 project. "It is my desire that people will remember him not just for his aeronautical accomplishments, but also for his environmental vision and achievements. May others follow passionately in his footsteps."


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