WPI West

A Publication for West Coast Alumni and Friends
Vol. 2, No. 1 / December 2002

Curt Carlson '67 Overseeing the 'Soul of Silicon Valley'
Silicon Valley Project Students Awake to Sleep Lab Needs
Patricia Gray '98 (M.S.), '00 (MBA) Finding the Right Moment
Paul MacCready A Career Spent Making Dreams Take Flight
Alumni News Briefs
Mark Your Calendar: WPI’s Heading West Again

A Career Spent Making Dreams Take Flight

Paul MacCready came to campus in November 2002 to make a presentation and to receive the WPI Presidential Medal (given to individuals who exemplify the ideal of a technological humanist). During the talk, he demonstrated an ornithopter, a tiny birdlike plane.

Long before recorded history, people studied birds, hoping to learn the secrets of flight. One summer more than 25 years ago, Paul MacCready joined those ranks. What he saw changed aviation history.

"I realized that I could figure out the speed and turning radius of birds soaring in circles by noting the time it takes them to do a 360-degree turn and estimating the bank angle," he says. "Then it hit me: I could take any airplane, keep the weight the same, but let the size get bigger in all dimensions, and the power requirements would go down by the same ratio the span went up. Conceptually, I could make the aircraft big enough to get by on the tiny power that a person puts out."

In 1977, that insight led to the Gossamer Condor, the first human-powered airplane to meet the challenge of the $100,000 Kremer Prize by flying a one-mile, figure-eight course at a starting and finishing altitude of 10 feet. With a 96-foot wingspan and a weight of about 70 pounds, it was kept aloft with a single pedal-driven propeller. The plane now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum, not far from Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis.

MacCready, who received an honorary doctorate in engineering from WPI in 1980, went on to win a second, and larger, Kremer Prize with the Gossamer Albatross, which crossed the English Channel in 1979. Two years later, his Solar Challenger became the first piloted, solar-powered plane to fly the channel. It traveled 162 miles at an altitude of 11,000 feet from Paris to an airfield in eastern England.

Achievements like that have earned MacCready numerous honors. They include the Collier Trophy (aviation's highest honor), the Reed Aeronautical Award, and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' Century Gold Medal.

MacCready's interest in flight goes back to his childhood days building custom-designed balsa airplanes. He trained to be a Navy pilot during World War II, then earned a bachelor's degree in physics at Yale and a Ph.D. in aeronautics at California Institute of Technology. He founded Meteorology Research, which pioneered weather modification, leaving in 1970. In 1971 he started AeroVironment Inc. in Monrovia and Simi Valley, Calif., which creates new products and businesses in wireless communications, distributed energy systems and vehicle electric power systems.

The company was responsible for the design of the Sunraycer, which won the first trans-Australian solar-powered car race in 1987, and General Motors' battery-powered Impact auto that GM turned into the commercial product EV-1. The company garnered headlines last summer when its Helios solar plane, designed as a prototype for a high-altitude telecommunications platform, flew to nearly 97,000 feet, shattering the altitude record for steady flight by over two miles.

MacCready says his continuing interest in solar energy and other forms of renewable sources of energy stems from a deep-seated concern for the future of the Earth. "While our human and solar aircraft may have been impractical as transportation devices," he says, "they did show how one can do jobs with less--less material, less energy--and need not consume nonreplenishable products, such as fossil fuels. Such economy must be an essential part of our future on a planet with limited resources."

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