Manpowered Flight

with 

Joseph Mastropaolo flying the Gossamer Condor.
See National Geographic 153(1): 130-140, 1978.

The First Kremer Prize for manpowered flight was announced in 1959. I learned of it in 1960 and while at Douglas Aircraft I formed a group of 20 interested engineers. When our preliminary design review was ready for some modest funding, the directors turned it down.

While at CSU Long Beach, Paul MacCready came by with a sketch on a brown paper bag. I gave him my view that the pilot-engine should be trained on a bicycle ergometer-simulator. To fly by his own power, a human is barely able to put out enough power for his body weight. An objective instrument was needed to evaluate the many variables in the training. To my surprise, with no background in physiology, Paul MacCready agreed.

After a couple of months, the Gossamer Condor took shape, crashed about 400 times, and each time was repaired in one day. The pilot insisted on training with his racing bicycle, reached a plateau at about 11% of the goal, and repeatedly could not progress further. I convinced him that he had nothing to lose by following my power-stimulus training protocol on the bicycle ergometer-simulator configured like the transmission in the Condor. If he failed at the 10% mark, he could always go back to training on the racing bicycle. In a week, he was past the 50% mark and in three weeks he flew the entire one mile figure-eight course having gone over the 10 ft barriers on takeoff and again before landing. The maximum-power training on the simulator permitted him to extend the one-quarter mile racing bicycle training record to the estimated 2.26 miles needed to win the First Kremer Prize of 50,000 £. As soon as the Prize was collected, the Second Kremer Prize was announced: England to France for 100,000 £.

We moved to England, where the pilot again insisted on training on his racing bicycle, this time in the cold windy English weather. For aerodynamic reasons, he was bound to be at the point of severe dehydration and heat exhaustion during the last hour of the flight. He was training in exactly the opposite kind of weather needed. He knew nothing of physiological science and was as adamantly opposed as ever to scientific advice. We had no military discipline on the project, so a new strategy was needed. As a result of an 82-mile bicycle race, I beat the #3 pilot and became the official #3 pilot. Then, I set a power record for 30 minutes on the bicycle ergometer-simulator in the part of the hangar that had the highest botsball (radiation plus humidity) temperature. Of course the #1 pilot felt obliged to break my record, but by the time he did I had set a record for 60 minutes. By the time he broke that one, I had set a record for 90 minutes. He broke that one but found I had set two 90-minute records on the same day. He broke those but found I had set a record for 120 minutes. When he broke that record, I trained with the power-stimulus method for three days in the highest botsball environment and broke his record. At the time, I was double his age and a significant banter developed amongst the crew.

Before he had time to break my record, the weather cleared and we prepared to fly. The #1 pilot would be flying with #3 (me) holding the power record. If the #1 pilot brought down in mid-channel the #1 Gossamer Albatross aircraft, then #3 might be the pilot of choice for the backup #2 Gossamer Albatross aircraft.

At supper with the #1 and #2 pilots, I asked what they would do if the discomfort became unbearable in the last six miles against the expected headwinds. One said, ditch, and the other said, call for a tow. I said, negative. This is bound to be many times more excruciating than any race they had ever been in. And if they expected me, the only good swimmer, to come to their rescue, they were mistaken. If either one had brought the aircraft down and he was’t a quivering mass of protoplasm, then I would personally drown him. Given what all of us had sacrificed, there was not a court in all of England that would convict me of anything except justifiable homicide.

Psychologically, conditions were perfect. Physiologically, conditions could hardly have been worse. He would be enclosed in a clear plastic canopy with a minimum ventilation duct spoiling the aerodynamics as little as possible. His hot saturated air high in CO2 would be exhaled inside, rather than outside the canopy, because he rejected the very lightweight breathing valve I offered him. He elected to take less drinking water than the training trials indicated. He would be broiled by the sun through the transparent canopy, dehydrated close to heat stroke, sweating with no cooling in the saturated air in the canopy, and basted in his exhaled CO2. This would be the most difficult endurance task anyone would ever wish to try.

Two days before the flight Paul MacCready asked me how long the pilot could last because there were bound to be head winds in the last six miles. I took out my data on the #1 pilot’s power records on the ergometer-simulator for 30, 60, 90, and 120 minutes, and from those data calculated the time to minimum power to fly. The answer was 170 minutes, just about the estimated time to fly with imperfect navigation the 32 miles across the Channel and so I reported it to MacCready. The landing took place in 169 minutes with the pilot falling out of the Albatross when the canopy was ripped open. He maintained he would not have made it if it had been high tide. The other crewmen had to ask MacCready if I indeed had given him the 170-minute limit two days before. They had to check because they felt so strongly that aerodynamic engineers might be that accurate (0.6%), but never anyone from biology.

And so British fastidiousness was satisfied. Mankind had progressed from gliders to gasoline-engine flight, but inexcusably had skipped manpowered fight. For 150,000 £, that flaw in the history of aviation belatedly had been remedied.

I remember flying the Condor and the Albatross. Those flights were closest to feeling like a soaring bird. Each zephyr was sensed. And there seemed to be an aura, a poetic sense of unity of mind and body brought aloft together and free in the sublime atmosphere. The experiences were unforgettable.

The Royal Aeronautical Society awarded a medal in physiology for training the pilot-engine for the manpowered flight prizes. The previous record distance was one-quarter mile with training on a racing bicycle. The first Kremer figure-of-eight Prize required an estimated distance of 2.26 miles and the second Kremer Cross Channel Challenge Prize required an estimated distance of 32 miles. Those record performances were achieved with the maximum-power stimulus method on the biomechanical simulators in the hottest botsball temperature environments providing customized metabolic storms and consequent cellular changes at the sites of muscular contraction. The method was subsequently confirmed with elite athletes from 12 different sports on land, sea, and air, unanimously breaking their lifetime best records.

These manpowered flight records would not have been achieved without the scientific training on the bicycle-simulators and the new maximum-power stimulus events created at the sites of muscular contraction. The customized metabolic storms changed the configuration of the muscle fibers to permit highest power in the hot humid high CO2 conditions of the flight. The #1 pilot believed that he could fly all day long at the power to fly when he first arrived in England. That was because the ergometer in its uncalibrated condition was set at too low a power to fly. Had he persisted on the uncalibrated ergometer and with his racing bicycle training he would not have won either prize.

12 Comments on Manpowered Flight

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    • 3-17-12
      Dear Izzykonto,

      The design is an original by Julia Mastropaolo.
      Best wishes,
      Joseph Mastropaolo

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    “We could have a link exchange agreement between us!”
    I am agreeable.
    Joseph Mastropaolo

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  6. Hyman,
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    Joseph Mastropaolo

  7. You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something that I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and extremely broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

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