Remarkable People

Remarkable inventor pioneered human-powered flight

Remarkable inventor pioneered human-powered flight
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Dr. Paul MacCready 1925-2007Source: AeroVironment (
Dr. Paul MacCready 1925-2007Source: AeroVironment (

September 6, 2007 The aeronautical world is mourning the loss of visionary inventor, designer and engineer Dr Paul MacCready, who passed away on 28 August 2007. Among his very long list of accomplishments, he was most widely known as the "father of human-powered flight". Using a craft he created, the Gossamer Condor, MacCready made the first sustained, controlled flight by a heavier-than-air craft powered solely by its pilot's muscles.

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1925 MacCready had a keen interest in aircraft as a youngster. At just 16 he flew solo in powered planes and in World War II, he flew in the U.S. Navy flight training program. At the age of 22 he graduated from Yale with a Bachelor of Science then went on to earn a master's degree in physics (1948) and a Ph.D. in aeronautics (1952). Throughout his lifetime his has also been awarded seven honorary degrees.

After working in various research and design roles (including pilot duties) MacCready founded Meteorology Research Inc., which became a leading firm in weather modification and atmospheric science research. Then in 1971 he set up AeroVironment, which was to become a leader in unmanned aircraft systems and efficient electric energy systems. MacCready acted as both chairman of the board and as mentor to the engineering staff.

In 1979 (two years after he shot to fame for the Gossamer Condor) MacCready and his team created the Gossamer Albatross, another 70-pound craft with a 96 foot wingspan. This aircraft achieved the first known human-powered flight across the English Channel and won MacCready the new Kremer prize of US$213,000, at the time the largest cash prize in aviation history.

The AeroVironment team led by MacCready developed two more aircraft, this time powered by the sun. In 1980 the Gossamer Penguin made the first climbing flight powered solely by sunbeams and in 1981 the Solar Challenger was piloted 163 miles from Paris to England, at an altitude of 11,000 feet. These craft were designed to draw world attention to photovoltaic cells as a renewable and non-polluting energy source for home and industry showing that MacCready was also an environmental pioneer.

Again in 1997, 1998 and 2001 MacCready and the AeroVironment team constructed and flew world-first craft in world-class ways. Not just limiting himself to aircraft, MacCready was responsible for the development of numerous vehicles, mostly for use by the military. MacCready once more showed he was an advocate for environmental sustainability building vehicles with low emissions and alternative energy sources. The unique vehicles produced by MacCready's teams have received international attention.

Throughout the course of his life MacCready’s work was recognized through many awards and prizes including the Collier Trophy (1979) for the greatest annual achievement in Aeronautics and Astronautics in America; Ingenieur of the Century Gold Medal (1980); Inventor of the Year Award (1981); Frontiers of Science and Technology Award (1986); Guggenheim Medal (1987); Pioneer of Invention (1992); inclusion in Time magazine’s “The Century’s Greatest Minds” (1999); Lifetime Achievement Aviation Week Laureate Award (1999); Prince Alvaro de Orleans Borbon Fund, First Annual Award (2001); 13th Annual Discover Magazine Award for Innovation in Science and Technology (2002); and 2005 Technology Leadership Award (2005). These are but a few of the scores of accolades bestowed upon MacCready.

More recently AeroVironment has been responsible for the creation of micro-unmanned military vehicles and innovatioins such as a hydrogen powered UAV. In January this year AeroVironment’s Aqua Puma UAV craft completed sea trials with the Royal Australian Navy.

Paul MacCready was a man with vision and determination who lived a full and rich life, tirelessly making valuable contributions within his field.

A memorial page has been posted on the AeroVironment site.

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