The Gossamer Albatross

Test flying the Gossamer Albatross -- the sun shining through the clear plastic mylar skin.

Published on June 12, 2012

On this date in 1979, the first man-powered aircraft made a flight across the English Channel to win the Kremer Prize. The aircaft, the Gossamer Albatross, was pedaled across by amateur cyclist Bryan Allen, whose thin body build and well-trained muscles were essential to the success of the flight.

The Gossamer Albatross was developed by American aeronautical engineer Dr. Paul B. MacCready’s AeroVironment. MacCready’s design utilized the most modern materials and engineering techniques to squeeze every ounce of weight from the airframe. It featured carbon fiber spars, wing rips of expanded polystyrene and a thin skin of clear, see-through mylar plastic stretched over the frame. Empty, the craft weighted just 71 pounds. With pilot, water bottle and the pilot’s clothing and limited equipment, the weight increased by additional 149 pounds to a total of 220 pounds in all.

To eliminate efficiency reductions from a traditional aircraft configuration (due to down force from the tail surfaces), a canard configuration was instead selected in the design — in 1902, the Wright Brothers had similarly chosen a canard configuration for their Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk for the very same reasons. However, unlike the Wright Flyer, where the pilots laid down across the top of the lower wing, with the Gossamer Albatross, the cockpit hung beneath a single wing and served as a vertical stabilizer. Due to the canard (tail-first) design, the horizontal stabilizer produced added lift that, coupled with the wing, was sufficient to achieve long endurance flight.

The route selected across the English Channel was from Folkestone, England, to Cap Gris Nez in France.  It was a distance of 22.2 miles, almost three times longer than the previous unmanned flight that MacCready had achieved with the record-breaking Gossamer Condor 18 months earlier in 1977.

Bryan Allen, the cyclist/pilot who would attempt the flight, entered a strict regimen of training, losing weight and increasing the endurance and strength of his legs. Multiple practice flights were undertaken and after each series the aircraft was steadily improved. Allen’s back-up pilot, Kirk Giboney, also trained concurrently. To make the flight, the team knew that it would require approximately two hours of hard pedaling. The two pilots were able to clock times aloft that exceeded an hour and covered half the distance.  A final propeller redesign aided immensely in providing better endurance. Finally, the team decided that the aircraft was ready for the attempt.

Getting the Plane to England

MacCready was able to secure the sponsorship of Du Pont to transport the Gossamer Albatross to England. Space booked as cargo on a TWA flight from Los Angeles (LAX). However, once at the airport, it was realized that the airframe and components didn’t fit through the B747’s cargo door. This was something that nobody had considered in the design of the aircraft.  It appeared that the flight across the Channel would be delayed or even canceled as a result.

The team discussed other options — loading the aircraft onto a ship was an option, but slow and not as secure.  There were no other cargo aircraft in the commercial fleet that could fit the aircraft, leaving few options — then one of the team members thought of using military air — the plane would fit perfectly into almost every airlift plane in the USAF and NATO fleet.

Ever resourceful, MacCready was able to somehow wrangle the support of the Royal Air Force, which happened to have a flight crew and a C-130 Hercules transport plane at Nellis AFB on a training mission. The RAF agreed to fly the Gossamer Albatross to England on board when the plane was scheduled to return just three days later. In a rush, the Gossamer was shipped overland from LAX to meet the RAF C-130.  On arrival, with great enthusiasm by the flight crew, it was loaded on board.

The flight to England was uneventful, but once offloaded from the C-130, the team realized that they had made a second logistics error — the Gossamer Albatross had no place to stay, no garage or barn in which they could store the plane as they prepared for the flight.  Further, the team was still in the USA, seeking stand-by and other cheap tickets on commercial airlines to fly over to England. Despite calling around, no hangar or storage site was found to be available. Again, somehow MacCready and the team pulled off a last minute miracle with the support of the RAF.  They found a place on one of the RAF bases to put the plane while they flew over and prepared for the flight.

Over the next couple of days, the team members streamed into England, one by one.  They gathered and prepared the aircraft for flight — it didn’t take long for everything to be staged for the flight.  They were ready, yet for the next three weeks, the weather was typically English.

The plan was simple — the aircraft was designed to fly at a top speed of just 18 mph. It would fly low to the surface of the English Channel, at an altitude of approximately 5 feet. To make it across, Bryan Allen would have to pedal at 75 rpm the entire way. He had practiced this exact pace for months and it was now second nature. To ensure his physical condition did not deteriorate, he would also drink water on a measured time table. The team was also very cognizant of the fact that they had never flown the aircraft over the water — all of the test flights had been over land.

The Flight

Finally, the day had come when winds, waves and forecasts all came together — it was June 12, 1979. Flying the plane was only part of the challenge. The team also had to assemble escort vessels and take care of all the details of a Channel crossing, which constituted an international venture, with all the necessary paperwork and clearances. The logistics involved two motor launches, four Zodiac rescue boats, all of the personal supplies for divers, emergency flares and coordination with the Coast Guard. Customs clearances and other paperwork were also necessary.  Public and media relations were a final piece of the puzzle.

The team arrived in the dark hours of the early morning and set about assembling the Gossamer Albatross. Plywood sheets were laid down on the earth so as to create a runway. They were a few plywood sheets short, a problem rectified by some friends at British Rail.  As the dawn broke, the team was ready for launch. As dawn broke, an updated weather report indicated that at mid-Channel it would likely be too windy to allow a successful crossing.  The team mentally shifted to a practice flight over water and, if everything came together, they would continue across and hope for the best.

A first take-off went awry when a wheel broke, causing the Albatross to skid to a stop on the runway. Hastily, repairs were made and a new wheel was fitted. Onlookers were gathering as the sun rose higher in the early morning dawn sky.  Some provided tools to help with the quick repairs.

Once again, they were ready for take-off. Bryan Allen pedaled the aircraft down the runway.  It lifted off perfectly. The crowd was shouting in encouragement as the plane headed toward the sea. Once over the water, the Allen pedaled toward the small ship that would lead the venture.  As he neared, they started the engine and charted a course across the Channel. The only thing they needed to do was to hold speed and heading as long as they could.  Following behind, the Albatross would steadily work its way across the seas. The zodiacs pulled into a formation at the aircraft wingtips and behind.

Yet again, the team encountered an unexpected problem — the ship’s heading had to differ from the aircraft’s heading to chart the right course. The latter only dealt with wind direction while the former had to deal with the combined effect of the water’s current and quartering winds. After several exchanges of communications, they were able to get a heading that worked and the mission continued.

Failures and Difficulties

Yet once again, unexpected difficulties arose. Incredibly, the two-way radio failed. The pilot could hear the frequency but was unable to transmit. Without reports from within the aircraft, the team couldn’t gauge the condition of the pilot or even know if he could hear their reports and requests. After more experimentation, they realized that they could use improvised hand signals from the pilot to the zodiacs that could closely motor alongside.

The minutes ticked by as Bryan Allen pedaled at a steady, practiced rate. They were now far out of sight of the shore. As forecast, the winds picked up, threatening the flight. The pilot soon signaled that the turbulence low over the water was too much for the Albatross. He motioned that it was too rough for the attempt to continue.

Although the team had developed a plan on how to land the aircraft atop one of the zodiacs, while the other zodiacs would position themselves under the wingtips and tail, they had never practiced it. Alternatively, they could try to hook a line to the cockpit and try to tow the aircraft back to land.  If these two options didn’t work, they would have to ditch the aircraft into the sea and attempt to drag it to shore.

With the turbulence, it appeared that towing the aircraft would be the best option. Allen pumped his legs faster and gingerly climbed the Gossamer Albatross to 15 feet of altitude so that one of the zodiacs could come underneath and attach the line. As the zodiac moved into position, Allen suddenly realized that at the higher altitude, just 10 feet higher than before, the turbulence he had experienced down low was gone.  If he could hold the plane up at this altitude, they could continue the flight across!

Frantically, he waved off the zodiac. Then, relentlessly he pushed on.

The Final Press to the Finish Line

Even as the team passed the two hour point, they were still far short of land. This posed a major problem — the flight had been carefully calculated to be completed in that time, yet they still had 1/3 of the way to go to Cap Gris Nez. The water and food supplies on board had been carefully calculated for the two hour trip.  Now, these were exhausted. Physically, the toll on Bryan Allen was starting to mount. Without water, he would soon start to dehydrate. Moreover, as the sun rose into the sky and the morning hours ticked over, the heat of the day began to assail him in the clear plastic cockpit. Even with ventilation, it was like a solar oven inside the clear mylar cockpit.

Then other problems emerged.  Passing the two hour mark saw the batteries run down on both the altimeter and airspeed indicator, which were essential to maintain the craft’s correct altitude and airspeed. From inside the mylar covered cockpit, Allen couldn’t accurately judge his height.  Even if the mylar was clear, it was translucent and he couldn’t be sure if he was 1 foot or 5 feet over the wave tops. Further, if he allowed his speed to fall off, he could stall the wing and cause the Albatross to crash into the ocean.

By pumping at the continuing rate of 75 rpm, he could judge that his speed would remain relatively constant, but the altitude was the most critical challenge.  Yet again, the team quickly devised a solution.  They could call altitudes to Allen over the radio. While he couldn’t transmit, he could at least hear them. Taras Kiceniuk, one of the members of the team on a chase boat, began a series of continuous altitude calls — ” five feet… four feet… four feet… three feet… four feet….”

Several times, Allen nearly crashed into the surface, coming within bare inches of the wave tops — Taras would call, “One foot… six inches… pedal, Bryan, PEDAL!” Each time, he would pedal and regain some altitude.

Despite these new challenges, the flight pressed onward. It seemed that success would likely be impossible, but Allen kept going. With every problem that emerged, new solutions were developed on the fly. None had been tried or practiced before.  Rationally, the team knew they couldn’t make it, but optimism prevailed — they would try to go as far as they could anyway.

With four and a half miles yet to go, Allen’s legs began cramping from dehydration. This was the expected result of running out of water — he labored on in pain, pedaling through serious leg cramps.

With 2.7 miles to go, now within sight of the land, his right leg muscles suddenly cramped up completely. Somehow, using just his left leg, he kept up the pace — 75 rpm to the propeller, pedal, pedal, keep the left leg pumping…. As long as the prop kept turning, the plane would keep flying.

His only thought was that he couldn’t give up within sight of land. Thankfully, the seas closer to shore were calmer and the winds abated some. Furthermore, the wind direction was shifting around to parallel the coast.

A new problem had to be considered — how would the plane manage the way the winds would interact and shift where the sea met the shore?

His left leg began to cramp up.  Allen had to press on — so close….  Through the pain, he began pumping again, this time just with the right leg. By alternating between legs, as each alternatively cramped up, he somehow continued to keep up the pace at 75 rpm. The two hours  planned limit was long past — they were approaching the shore after nearly three hours of pedaling.

Landing in France

The shallows of the near shore forced the boats to veer off the track, leaving the Gossamer Albatross to forge ahead on its own.  Here, with just a few hundred yards left, another problem emerged.  The morning sun and temperature differences within and outside the mylar cockpit caused the clear plastic to fog over with moisture. He could still see upward, but not down or straight ahead. Once again, a surprising solution presented itself as a French broadcasting crew released a tethered red balloon to use in transmitting their videos. The balloon was visible through the top part of the mylar, giving Allen the directional information he needed to now navigate his way ahead to shore, if blindly.  Even from afar, Taras continued calling out altitudes.

As the plane neared the beach, the winds blew the Albatross over a rocky outcrops; he could crash there or keep going and make it to the sand.  It was a choice to make — to reach the beach, he would have to turn into and pedal against the wind.  He kept going, turning in against the wind with a final burst of exertion.  He was able to clear the rocks and get back over smooth water as he maneuvered to a landing.

At 8:40 am, fully 2 hours and 49 minutes into the flight, he touched down. The 22 mile trip, with winds, had actually equated to 33 miles of pedaling.

Exhausted, dehydrated and yet simultaneously elated, he emerged from the undamaged Gossamer Albatross and stepped on the sands of the beach — and into history.  He had become the first to successfully fly across the English Channel by man power alone. Champagne was uncorked as crowds gathered.  The team beached their zodiacs and got to work dismantling the Albatross for transportation to a nearby garage they had rented (having learned the lesson of having a hangar reserved ahead of time). The only mishap was that in a final irony, an onlookers dog decided to rush the plane and attack it. The damage was minor and easily repaired, but the dog-owner was mortified.

After champagne and celebrations, by the late afternoon, the Gossamer Albatross was moved once again, this time to Le Bourget where the bi-annual meeting the world’s leading aeronautical authorities was coincidentally underway. The plane was hung in the hallowed halls of Musee de l’Air amidst more champagne toasts and speeches.

What many thought of as impossible had been achieved. It had taken brilliant engineering, a team of aero-modelers and aviation enthusiasts under the leadership of MacCready, a former Navy pilot who held a BS from Yale and a PhD from Caltech.  It had taken an amateur cyclist who simply refused to quit. Beset by unexpected difficulties all along the way, they persevered and somehow had made it. Later, Allen remarked, “There were so many unknowns on that flight that I could not be certain we’d make it, but I was certain I’d use every resource in trying.”

Today, the Gossamer Albatross hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC.  Bryan Allen works at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratories.  Paul B. MacCready’s AeroVironment is a leader in the design and manufacturing of some of the world’s finest unmanned aerial vehicles.

Sadly, Paul MacCready passed away in 2007 after suffering from Metastatic Melanoma. He was 81 years old.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *