A Wright-Minded Pioneer, Paul MacCready, Develops a Plane Powered by the Sun

updated 06/08/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/08/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The world has always been exploring fresh ways to travel on, in, under and over the English Channel. But when the new aircraft of Pasadena's Paul MacCready takes off later this month, it will mark the first time anyone has tried to sunbathe across the Strait of Dover.

MacCready's Solar Challenger is powered by 16,128 photovoltaic cells spread across its 47-foot wingspan. The cells turn sunlight into electricity for its tiny motor, so MacCready will send the flight off on a sunny day and hope no clouds appear. If that creates some tension, MacCready has had practice. The last time one of his aircraft flew the Channel, he worried that his pilot would tire of pedaling.

It was MacCready, 55, who built the Gossamer Albatross and the Gossamer Condor, which were run, in effect, by a bicycle mechanism linked to a propeller. They earned him $308,000 from a wealthy British aircraft fancier who had offered the prize money to the designer of the world's first man-powered aircraft to fly a 1 1/3-mile figure-eight course (Condor did it in 1977) and the first to fly the Channel (Albatross in 1979). MacCready also owns a prospering company that designs devices for trucks to cut down wind resistance—and thus fuel consumption. So MacCready isn't in the solar power business for the money or to make his name. Condor already hangs in the Smithsonian. Last year MacCready was named an Engineer of the Century by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and this year he won a national Inventor of the Year Award.

"To me," he says, "if the Challenger flight can focus public attention on solar energy and lessen our dependence on imported oil, it will be worthwhile. If I could make the point with a thing that goes underground, I would."

Still, MacCready has had a lifelong passion for things that fly. As a boy in New Haven, where his dad was a doctor and his mother a nurse, he was named national junior model plane champion at 15. He was a licensed pilot at 16 and at 22, as a new Phi Beta Kappa physics grad of Yale, he earned the first of three U.S. soaring championships. In 1956 he became the first Yank to win the world championship. By then he had a Ph.D. in aeronautics from Cal Tech and had begun a career that took him into meteorology and pollution abatement, but MacCready never lost interest in aircraft.

Driving from Florida to New England with his family in 1976, he began thinking about bird flight. "The big picture emerges when you have time for daydreaming," he reflects. In this case he studied the total weight-to-wing-span ratio of birds in order to create his pedaled planes. He built Condor with his own funds, but its success led to a $275,000 grant from the Du Pont Company for Albatross. Du Pont later pitched in more than $600,000, including nylon, plastics and Dacron, to help MacCready build Challenger and its predecessor, Gossamer Penguin.

His light and agile son Marshall, now 14, flew 50 test flights in the Penguin last year, surviving one crack-up unscathed. When it got more sophisticated, Dad substituted Janice Brown, a 95-pound former teacher and veteran pilot. She skippered the first recorded solar-powered flight without batteries or pedals in Penguin, over a two-mile course at the NASA/Dryden facility in Edwards, Calif. last August. She was also at the controls during several test flights last December when mechanical problems or lack of sun turned the 210-pound Challenger into a glider. Each time, she landed safely. (Its top speed so far has been 40 mph, its peak altitude 14,300 feet, its longest flight eight hours 19 minutes.)

Stephen Ptacek, 28, a 135-pound veteran pilot, will make the Channel flight unless there's a spell of hazy weather. Then MacCready will call on Brown, whose light weight may compensate for weakened sun power. The Challenger will take off sometime after June 11 from Cormeilles-en-Vexin, about 25 miles northwest of Paris. MacCready hopes the plane can land at Croydon, south of London, but says if Challenger lands anywhere in England, he'll consider the flight a success.

Meanwhile MacCready, tired of soaring only in his imagination, has shed 14 pounds (to 141), using Judy Mazel's Beverly Hills diet. His goal is to pilot one of Challenger's follow-up flights himself.

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