Today in History – June 12, 1979 – Gossamer Albatross crosses the English Channel. The Gossamer Albatross aircraft was designed by Jack MacCready to fly long distances with a human pedaling pilot as the only source of power. The historic June 12, 1979 flight across the English Channel was piloted by Bryan Allen, covering a distance of 22.25 statute miles (35.6 km) in 2 hours and 49 minutes.
A century earlier, John J. Montgomery makes first controlled “heavier than air” glider flight at Wheeler Hill, California. He sails a distance of 603 feet at an altitude of about fifteen feet. He continued to perfect the design by making and testing modifications. In 1894, he published a summary of this work in Octave Chanute’s “Progress in Flying”; a book that the Wright Brothers are reported to have read. Montgomery was the first person to use the term “aeroplane” and was granted the first “aeroplane” patent in 1906. Montgomery died testing one of his powered designs for Vicor Loughead (later Lockheed) in 1911. Norman Ward reconstructed the 1883 Montgomery Glider shown in the photograph above right.
In 1977, Paul MacCready’s Gossamer Condor was the first human powered flight around a figure eight. MacCready and his team won the $50,000 Kremer Prize and captured the world’s attention. Bryan Allen maintained a head-height during the 7 1/2 minute figure eight flight.
British millionaire Henry Kremer and the Royal Aeronautical Society offered the Kremer Prize to the “designer who could create a human-powered flying machine”. After 18 years of no winners, MacCready’s Gossamer Condor made history in 1977 when it became the first human-powered vehicle to achieve a sustained flight, performing a complex maneuver.
The Gossamer Condor is now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. MacCready went on to win a number of other flight firsts and also developed the solar-powered Sunraycer that competed in a race across Australia. His 1990 electric car, built in collaboration with General Motors, resulted in the Impact electric car that could accelerate from zero to 60 mph in eight seconds.
For more information, see the Engineering Pathway’s resources on John Montgomery, Paul MacCready, Gossamer Condor and gliders. Or view curricular resources at the Aerospace Engineering Education Community site.