In June 1979, a human-powered aircraft (HPF)--pedaled, like a bike--skimmed the English Channel, a feat that doesn't quite...


GOSSAMER ODYSSEY: The Triumph of Human-Powered Flight

In June 1979, a human-powered aircraft (HPF)--pedaled, like a bike--skimmed the English Channel, a feat that doesn't quite rank in import with Bleriot's first mechanically-powered flight or in human interest with the first swims. But it not only copped a £100,000 prize for the designer of the Gossamer Albatross, Paul MacReady, Jr.; it capped 65 years of off-and-on efforts with an American triumph, something no one would have predicted as late as 1976. Grosset--an engineer, an author (of, most recently, the YA Diesel: The Man and the Engine), and, importantly for this story, a Californian--was a member of the Gossamer Albatross team; so was his wife Janet--an old hand at planes too, it turns out. In fact, the story is very much one of a fellowship of enthusiasts--similar in background, linked over time, drawn together by coincidence (?)--which coalesced around the person of Paul MacReady: skilled pilot, aeronautical engineer, ex-US and -world soaring champion, and, as of early '76, at a career dead-end and in debt. So why leave the HPA prize-money (first, for a figure-of-eight flight) to the foundering British pursuers and a single, systematic, tenacious Japanese? Grosset backtracks, and we see young Paul shift his interest from boats, his father's passion, to flying insects and then to ""manmade flying machines""--ten-cent balsa-wood models, often ""unorthodox,"" some prophetic. Come '76, we follow the MacReadys on a cross-country trip, and see him stop to watch circling birds, meditate on hang gliders, decide that ""it was possible to build a human-powered airplane by using hang-glider technology."" MacReady's time away from planes since his youth; Grosser notes, relieved him of the ""need to produce a 'modern' human-powered vehicle."" He fills in the background of others on the ""multi-talented team,"" and suggests that only in California could they have come together. He recounts the construction and testing of the Gossamer Condor--which took the figure-of-eight prize in August '77--and its successor, the Channel-conquering Gossamer Albatross, as a mix of technical and human problems (perhaps more readily resolved, too, in the free-and-easy California clime). And the successful Channel flight is almost a letdown, here, after the celebrations following the first triumph, when anyone who came along had a chance to pilot the Condor. ""It flies so slowly,"" said the impromptu instructor, ""that you can walk alongside and tell the pilot what to do."" For a wide spectrum of aeronautics buffs, craftsmen-tinkerers, and romantic sophisticates--much to think about, much to enjoy.

Pub Date: April 27, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1981