When was the first human-powered airplane flight?

The ancient myth of Daedalus and Icarus notwithstanding, it wasn’t until 1977 that a human-powered airplane managed to go any significant distance.

Called the Gossamer Condor, the plane was designed by a California-based engineer named Paul MacCready.

MacCready built the plane in order to collect on a long-standing award that British industrialist Henry Kremer established in 1959, which awarded £50,000 that first year to the first substantial flight of a human-powered plane.

Despite measuring 30 feet long with a wingspan of 96 feet, the Condor weighed just 70 pounds. How did they make it so light? Its skeleton was made of aluminum tubes braced with piano wire. Balsa wood, corrugated cardboard, Styrofoam, and plastic sheeting made up the body and wings, and a bicycle crank and chain connected the power train to the propeller.

Strong-legged bicycle racer Bryan Allen piloted it. To win, the Condor had to pass over a ten-foot barrier at the start, fly in a figure eight around two pylons set half a mile apart, then pass again over the ten-foot barrier before landing.

The plane traveled the 1.25-mile course in 7 minutes, 22.5 seconds, averaging just over 10 mph.

For their troubles, MacCready and Allen split the prize, equivalent to $95,000.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

1 thought on “When was the first human-powered airplane flight?”

  1. One of the early collaborators with MacCready, Jack Lambie, had a contractual agreement to receive a certain portion (I believe 10%) of the prize money if the prize was won. The pilot had no such agreement; I know that, as I was the pilot. Several team members were paid some wages, a few were strictly unpaid volunteers. Morton Grosser’s book “Gossamer Odyssey” covers the financial messiness in a bit more detail. Ultimately, Dr. MacCready’s goal of netting ~$100,000 to pay off a debt was not achieved, as the year-long project led him to accrue substantial expenses. But the publicity obtained for his company, and the subsequent winning of the cross-channel prize, seemed to make up for this shortfall. Prize-winning ventures are seldom financially straightforward!

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