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.