Remembering Paul MacCready by Ben Shedd – Written 19/Sept/2007
“Imagining the impossible, and then doing it.”
Being around Dr. Paul MacCready and his ideas, I saw and documented someone who changed everything about the world. Before the Gossamer Condor airplane flew, human-powered flight was considered impossible in all of human history – and after the Gossamer Condor completed the challenging Kremer Prize course, human-powered flight was a reality. Over the past three decades, I observed that Paul’s projects keep changing everything about the world, and I learned that we all change everything about the world – often not nearly as visible as Paul’s lifetime of work, but none the less real change – all the time, and that is very empowering to know.
Although nothing like flying the Gossamer Condor had ever been done before in human history, my making the film about the plane was for me a very low risk issue once I had met Paul. I researched his background and learned that even then he took huge leaps in the things he did, and he let me dig through his notebooks and hand drawn sketches of the soon to be built Gossamer Condor airplane. As I taught myself all about flight, the proposed wing-loading in his design jumped out at me. To cut down on the power needed by a pilot pedaling [where the upper limit was about 1/3 horsepower] human-powered planes needed to have a trim strong pilot like Bryan Allen and a very large wing area. All the previous attempts at making pedaled-powered airplanes used the interior box structure so common in motor powered planes and their wing loading – total weight divided by wing area – was always in the range of 1 pound per square foot. With Paul’s idea to make a huge hang glider using giant triangles of piano wire to brace the huge wing – wired triangles from the top post out to the wing when it was on the ground and wired triangles from the bottom post when the wing lifted the plane into the air – the Gossamer Condor wing loading was going to be in the range of .2 pounds per square foot, an order of magnitude drop from all other designs, as long at the wing held together, and it did. Even on paper, his ideas had taken a huge simple leap from anything in the past. Combined with Paul’s clear determination to win the Kremer Prize money, I knew we should follow this team as long as they were working on the Gossamer Condor – and indeed, it flew into aviation history.
On occasion every couple of years, I would see Paul or give him a call, and invariably he would pick up the phone without knowing who the caller was and say “This is Paul” and jump into a 10 or 15 or 20 minute conversation about new ideas he was working on or thinking about. While talking, I always wrote notes as fast as possible because of the flood of interesting ideas. When we last talked in February, I brought up the demise of the EV1 electric car which I had driven from knowing about Paul’s projects, and Paul noted that besides being a great all-electric car, it was the best low drag vehicle ever made. I remembered Paul once telling me that to cut down on drag, a car or any object needed to put the air back together again as it moved through it. And then in our phone call, my notes say Paul commented “All cars would have much less drag if driven backwards instead of forwards.” Another of those simple huge ideas that changes everything.
In the month before Paul passed away, I was working on a remastered version of our film about the Gossamer Condor for the 30th anniversary of its flight, and I spent many hours looking through 30 years of time to those events when Paul led the Gossamer Condor team to make the first truly flyable human-powered airplane. Thanks to Aerovironment’s support, the new DVD of the film makes the 30 year old story all new. Even as Paul slipped away a few weeks ago, there are so many of his ideas and words and pictures to keep all of us thinking and doing and inspired for our whole lives. I’ll miss the phone calls and visits, but I find Paul’s ideas and constant curiosity and thoughtful provocations are alive everywhere I look.