What is the MacCready Gossamer albatross?

In 1959 a group was formed by the Royal Aeronautical Society called the “Man Powered Aircraft Group”. The name was later changed to “Human Powered Aircraft Group” due to the many aviation exploits achieved by women. The Gossamer Albatross was the second human-powered aircraft built by American aeronautical engineer Dr. Paul B MacCready’s company AeroVironment to win the second Kremer Prize.


The Kremer Prize

British industrialist Henry Kremer has invested £5,000 for the first human-powered aircraft to perform a figure-eight course around two landmarks half a mile apart. In 1973 Kremer increased the prize money to £50,000, which Dr Paul MacCready’s first aircraft, the Gossamer Condor, claimed on 2 August 1977, after successfully flying the course eight to ten feet above of the ground.

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In 1909, Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper offered a £1,000 prize to the first person to pilot an airplane across the English Channel. This challenge was taken up by the French aviator Louis Blériot. On July 25, 1909, he successfully flew his Blériot XI monoplane from Calais to Dover in 36 minutes and 30 seconds.

Meanwhile, in 1979, wanting to push the boundaries of human-powered flight and to celebrate feet 70 years ago, a second Kremer Prize worth £100,000 (equivalent to over £500,000 today ) was offered to the first person who could fly a human-powered aircraft across the English Channel.

The plane looked like the Wright Flyer

The aircraft designed for the flight called the Gossamer Albatross had a “duck” configuration, similar to the Wright Brothers’ Wright Flyer. The Gossamer Albatross was built on a carbon fiber frame with expanded polystyrene wing ribs. The aircraft skin was a thin transparent plastic film developed in America by DuPont. Without the human in the plane to propel it, the total weight of the plane was 71 pounds.

At the time, MacCready said building the plane and preparing for the flight cost him £100,000 more than the prize money. Seeing that he would promote many of their products, DuPont agreed to help fund the attempt.

The Gossamer Albatros crossed the English Channel in June 1972

Shortly before six o’clock in the morning on June 12, 1979, pilot Bryan Allen took off from Folkestone in Kent in ideal conditions. Shortly after the flight began, Allen’s radio failed and he could only communicate with the chase boat by hand signals. On top of that, headwinds slowed the flight, and without enough drinking water, it was feared that Allen would suffer from dehydration and experience leg cramps.

As the headwinds began to pick up and the French coasts were still not in sight, the pursuit boat stopped in front of the Albatross in case the attempt had to be called off. Mounted a little higher, Allen encounters less wind problems and pedals towards the French coasts.

After two hours and 49 minutes of flight, Allen landed the Gossamer on the beach at Cap Gris-Nez, completing the 22.2-mile crossing. During the crossing, Allen reached an average speed of 18 mph while flying an average of just five feet above sea level.