Once confined to the realm of Greek myth and the drawings of da Vinci, human-powered flight was already a reality when, in 1979, engineer Paul MacCready and his team created the Gossamer Albatross.
The pedals of a bike had never carried an aircraft more than a few thousand meters. MacCready believed his plane could
transport one pilot over the English Channel. At just 71 pounds, the aircraft had been constructed out of extraordinarily light materials and its tail-first horizontal stabilizer ensured it could sustain distances.
But in the dim light of an English morning, the greater journey — a 22-mile stretch of water — lay still ahead. In the cockpit was cyclist Bryan Allen, whose success in the Albatross could promise a record for the longest distance covered by a human-powered aircraft, not to mention the $200,000 Kremer prize, which is awarded to the rare pioneer in human-powered aviation.
Allen took off across a makeshift runway and lifted into the air without a hitch. Through light headwinds, he propelled the aircraft just meters above the ocean swell as a flotilla crew kept watch on him below. At this rate they could expect to reach Cap Griz Nez on the coast of France in about two hours.
Two hours in, though, Allen was still pedaling and the aircraft’s batteries, which helped him maintain the right air speed and altitude, were faltering. The two-way radio he had been using to communicate with the flotilla crew had failed and the winds were pushing hard against the plane. His legs cramped with dehydration. He pushed forth for the remaining four miles, before reaching the coast of France, victorious and flustered with exhaustion. No person before had cycled a plane over the English Channel, and no person has done it since.
A yellow-tinted video shows Allen stepping out of the cockpit onto the French shore to hoots and applause by MacCready and his team and more than a few reporters who swarm him with questions.
“Do you view yourself as a historical figure?” a journalist asks from off camera.
Allen responds, grinning, “I view myself as pretty tired.”