Human Powered Aircraft


All human-powered aircraft built thus far must be flown in calm air, so flights are usually made at dawn or dusk, when the wind is as still as possible. In this half-light, flight preparations are made in silence. No, this is not a rule; no one has told the humans to hush. But all involved seem to sense that even the smallest reverberation of voice waves in the air might tear a wing, might ripple destruction onto the thing they’ve built, together. Or, at least, they sense the irrational fear words might—however improbably— ruin all this.

But the builders of aircrafts are, yes, scientific minds. They don’t actually believe in sonic waves with the capacity to tear. They believe instead in piety, in paying respect to their work and to numbers, that religion which makes all things possible. I add, and the universe all becomes air. I breathe. And so they are quiet in these quiet hours, and this appeals to their symmetrical natures. Things should fit. Here, they do.

These human powered planes are large, silent and often transparent; they combine delicacy and expanse like dirigibles from the 1930s. Watch video of the Hindenburg crashing. Watch tissue paper burn in your hand, gone so fast. Find a dead dandelion, its head all fuzz. Blow.

            These are the fears, and the why of their quiet.


The Kremer Prizes are a series of monetary awards established in 1959 by English industrialist Henry Kremer awarded to pioneers of human-powered flight. The Royal Aeronautical Society’s Human Powered Aircraft group administers the competitions and prizes.

The competitions are as follows (in order of completion):[1]

(1) Fly a figure eight around two markers one half mile apart, starting and ending the course at least ten feet above the ground. Status: Completed, 1977. Award: £50,000

(2) Fly across the English Channel. Status: Completed, 1979. Award: £100,000.

(3) Fly your craft on a triangular course of length 1.5 kilometers in under three minutes. Status: Completed, 1983. Award: £20,000

            (a) Beat, 1984. Award: £10,000

                        (b) Beat, 1984. 

                                    (c) Beat, 1984. Award: £10,000

                                                (d) Beat,

                                                            Competition withdrawn, on the grounds of safety.

(4) Complete a marathon course in under an hour. Status: Incomplete. Award: £50,000

(5) Maneuverability challenge. Status: Incomplete. Award: £100,000

            Since their announcement, the Kremer prizes have inspired the design of countless HPAs (human-powered aircrafts). None had succeeded—until Paul MacCready Jr., in a single year, drafted the plan and then created the functioning body of a human-powered aircraft from scratch. His design would surprise the aeronautics world not just for winning the first Kremer prize ever awarded, but for winning it so fast. How’d he do it?

Paul liked to observe circling birds. By estimating a bird’s angle of bank and timing its circles, he could calculate three parameters of its flight: the radius of the circle, the flight speed, and the angle at which the air meets a wing traveling through it. He liked science. Some other of his hobbies: hang-gliding. In fact, he was the first US citizen crowned the World Soaring Champion.  And his team: Vern Oldershaw, Bryan Allen, etc. Yes, there were other, but these two named were the most important: his right hand man, and the human powering his aircrafts.

Stand at shore. Look up. Squint. Don’t squirm even though the sun is heat on your skin. The longer you stand, the warmer it gets, the heavier the feel of the rays. You know: this is Sun, and it wants to hurt me. I am bright, and so I must burn. The ends of your arm hairs begin to singe, but you know each is a slow fuse. The calculations cannot be argued: there is still time before you need worry about the fire. You are already burned so why turn back now. The stench of burning hair is mildly unpleasant, yes, but you need to be witness.

You spot him then, the first of his kind to fly. “Follow my path of flight,” but he cannot. The warm air lifts him up, and he can’t help but follow, doesn’t fight it. It is fun to feel so light, and to see the world so small. This is the human impulse to devise strange contraptions with which to rival birds. Here is his tendency to crash.

Feathers protect the body from various kinds of damage, like loss of water and abrasions. He is broken anyway as he hits the water. He falls fast, a marked contrast to the slow glide of the before. In a splash you can’t hear over the waves, the body is lost. The wax rehardens in the chill saline solution.

His name is Icarus. You know him; we all do.

It is, of course, quiet as he falls.


HPA are, as has been stated, usually transparent. The lightest materials are clear so that you can guess their weight by their color. There have been so many of them that they are given names.

There was the Puffin, and its predecessor Puffin II. There was Stork, which came after the Linnet (also, evidently, a bird). The Linnet is a bird with a particularly mediocre flight pattern, the craft was so named because it’s designer was superstitious: it didn’t want high expectation to jinx his team’s chances. Storks, on the other hand, are powerful fliers. That is why we trust them with our young. There was Egret, and then Egrets II and III. Liverpuffin. Toucan. Burd. The Reluctant Phoenix[2]. The condor.

It was a conscious decision to name them after a species other than homosapien. The pretending bones are hollow is necessary for the defeat of gravity by human muscles.

Name it a bird and it will fly.

The power necessary to fly (call it P)= W x w. The weight of craft (see: W) and its minimum sinking speed (see: w) are both related, hence their being represented by the same letter. A wing has a loading. Define it as: L=W/A, or weight of bodycraft per unit of wing area. Know L and know its CL, or the standard measure of how efficient any flying object is at flying. The average bird registers at CL=0.9. The precise relationship between all these things: w~ √ (W/A). Given the proportion between power and wing loading, MacCready reasoned that if you could triple all of a hang glider’s dimensions and keep its weight about the same by using lighter, light as possible, maybe even partially hollow materials, and combine clever wing bracing, then A would increase and L decrease and the sinking speed would decrease to one third its normal value, and so too then would the power necessary to fly.

W x (w/3)= P/3

[Or in other words: within the range of human capability.]

This is the beauty in flight, and of math: bodies translate into letters, and then words, and are made light enough to be carried into ears. They float between them for a while, competing for prizes when the weather permits. The air must be calm for anything to make sense. Inner-ear turbulence cannot be treated; it’s a matter of balance and faulty equilibrium. And nothing can be measured without some basic standard with which to measure it against. The bottom line: equations transform heavy things into ones that fly. Pray the constants hold true, even though you don’t have to.

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus)

Weight: 70 lbs.  

Wingspan: 96 feet.

Habitat: Found only in Southern California, during times when the air is steady and the noise level classified as calm.



$68,750 (total project cost)


$3,000 (California state taxes)

=Barely enough to pay your crew for defying gravity.


Bryan Allen was chosen for his skill as both bicyclist and aviator. Knowing him and his talent, the shrieks, “turn left! Stop Pedaling! Stop Pedaling! Left! LEFT!” seem especially violent. Trust Bryan. He knows what he’s doing.

But his slow descent eventually reveals itself a fall, and then a collapsed wing. It folds over itself in geometric shapes, an obtuse angle here, an acute one there. They are all wrong. These are the shapes of ego inverting in on itself. Come! They said. Come and see us win a prize for doing what Gravity tells our bodies they cannot.

It was the fuselage, says Vern. It was just a makeshift adaptation from when the condor’s chest cavity, its cockpit, was exposed, never a proper redesign[3].

The final image: a face pressed against the cellophane, the suction preventing air from oxidizing Bryan’s embarrassment so that it might rust and fall away. The video does this, too. You can watch it on youtube, and rewatch it again. This moment lasts longer than most.

It is more creature than machine. And creation cannot be hastened. It need gestate. This explains the length of time taken, but not why it was so relatively short. One year is longer than nine months, but not by much. And remember: it is born fully functional. No cartilage or gelatinous joints, no impressionable skulls. The Condor is fleshless but for the heart, each pedal a pump. Its heart is a body in itself. It is all skeleton and skin and math. It wants to take to the air so bad because it knows: the ground wants to take you down, swallow you back. Every footprint an erosion, yes, but it is a verb working both ways. On earth, nothing lasts. But the sky never ends. 



 There is a feeling of balloons in the chest, of a heart on helium. Even Vern is giddy, and Vern is never giddy. Everyone rides it: the old woman named Maude, so that you know she is old; the ten year old child; the one who doesn’t know how to ride a bike. 

A second telegram: the Director and the Deputy Director of the National Air and Space Museum had approved the acquisition of the Gossamer Condor for display in the museum’s new building in Washington, D.C. They don’t know this then, but the Condor’s display will hold it suspended, in air, with a mannequin in the cockpit. From somewhere in the background: “The final winning of the prize seems a little sad. The rules stood a magnificent challenge always just beyond reach.”[1]

And so a new goal: human-powered flight across the English Channel. GO.

The new rules: the aircraft had to be heavier than air, and could carry no energy storage devices, hot air, or lighter-than-air gases. It had to be powered and controlled entirely by its crew over the entire flight, receive no aerodynamic assistance from any outside vehicle, and jettison neither parts nor persons during the flight. Three ground crewmen were permitted to stabilize the place during takeoff (but not accelerate it). There was no limit to the number of flying crew, as long as they used no drugs or stimulants, and stayed aboard the entire flight. The entrant also had to indemnify the Royal Aeronautical Society against all claims.

The Gossamer Albatross was a name decided only after controversy. A list of rejected names: the Gossamer Penguin, the Gossamer Ostrich, the Gossamer Kiwi. The first is an actual recommendation from MacCready, the second two the response of his construction team.

They may have balked at the symbolic dissonance (Paul’s reasoning: “[my wife] likes penguins”). But these men are less aerial than they once were. They know accolades, and success; they are men of the earth, and its mountains, its hierarchies. They know the precise distance between local news and the international news (re: Reuters) was small; man can cross the channel faster than a bird. Perhaps this explains its nickname: the Albert Ross.

Name it after man and it will span distance, make it small.


The initial draft of the Albatross was made of jury-rigged substitutes, the condor disassembled and remade anew. According to Vern, the parts were: miscellaneous&crummy &barelyfittings&wires&ropes. This will not do. This isn’t math. The fuselage will not hold. So, then, this: 


The second draft was of the highest technology. Kevlar, and new plastic polymers designed in the kitchens of the Albatross squadron. Or think of it this way: it is conceivable the Wright brothers could have created the Gossamer Condor, given their knowledge of aerodynamics and then-available materials. It would have been impossible to build the Gossamer Albatross any earlier than thirty years ago. The necessary materials did not exist. It is essentially artificial, a contraption in its purest sense. No one believed it would fly. Nothing so man made could be elegant enough for flight. 

The “fly, crash, repair and fly again” philosophy cannot apply here. Albert Ross regularly exceeds heights of fifty feet. Bryan Allen transpires one liter of moisture per hour during hard pedaling. Origami folds from up so high and arms will break with the wings— the creature’s very heart will give out, not just its bones. Morale sinks. 


The deliberate procession of the transparent Albert Ross over water. The trailing shadow seeming more a thing than the thing itself. The feeling again of balloons in the chest, of a heart on helium. This is technically against the rules: no gases lighter than air. And remember to forget the dirigible. Nothing will go on fire here. Expect your second telegram in the mail. You have won.

Stand on the shore. Look up. Squint. Don’t squirm even though the sun is heat on your skin. The longer you stand, the warmer it gets, the heavier the feel of the rays. You know: this is Sun, and it wants to hurt me. I am bright, and so I must burn. The ends of your arm hairs begin to singe, but you know each is a slow fuse. The calculations cannot be argued: this plastic is a wax so modern it won’t melt.  This is the human impulse to devise strange contraptions with which to rival birds. Here is his tendency to cross oceans.



Welcome to the International Paper Modelers Convention in Sterling, Virginia.

Paper modeling is origami made with glue and scissors. Some call this cheating. Paper is less beautiful this way. Modelers know it, and are sensitive about it. They have less tradition, and they know that too. And so they show-off.

Make a C&O Canal Packet Boat! Make this Delivery Van! Make Le Puy Cathedral! Or this, the Yomeimon Shrine!

On the 2011 Convention pamphlet: After visiting the convention, stop at the Smithsonian Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center just down the road, to see the Gossamer Albatross, which made the first human-powered flight across the English Channel on June 12, 1979. Sterling, VA: center of innovation. Attached are directions on how to model a Gossamer Condor out of paper and glue, enviably lightweight materials. Feathers protect the body from various kinds of damage, like loss of water and abrasions. This body has none.

                  This is the shape of inverted ego, all awkward joints and angles. The technology for wax laminate has not yet been printed for paper modeler use. It becomes a poor paper mâche in the rain, suitable only for making models of amateur sand castles, or melting ice cream cones.

                  The texture will be similar, and the tone: with materials come endings, and delight will always be revealed as disproportionate, once excitement gives way to time. In the rain, the papers will look like a body chewed and spit up, recycled poorly. The sounds of rain hitting paper: a sheet hit, rattling with the impact. A hole made, an impact muffled in all that soggy. The plodding, the plodding until the rain stops and then, finally, it’s over.

Nothing lasts, even air is hungry for your body. It will eat you too.

[1] This is a quote from Dr. John McCaster, a longtime HPA enthusiast. 

{C}[1]{C} There are also youth competitions (re: under 18) that only local (re: from the UK) students are eligible to win. Status: Incomplete.

{C}[2] It was never explained why the Phoenix was so reluctant. It was, however, inflatable.

[3] The fuselage is the main body section of an aircraft. It holds crew and passengers and cargo. Think of it as a torso. Think of it as a cabin. It also serves to position control and stabilization surfaces in specific relationships to lifting surfaces, required for aircraft stability and maneuverability.