The Flight of the Gossamer Albatross

AeroVironment Celebrates the 43rd Anniversary of the record-setting, prize-winning 1979 flight

On June 12, 1979, the Gossamer Albatross became the first fully human-powered aircraft to cross the English Channel.  The 70-lb aircraft completed the 26-mile flight in 2 hours, 49 minutes, clinching the second prestigious Kremer Prize for Dr. Paul MacCready.

A follow-up to 1977’s Kremer Prize winning Gossamer Condor (first sustained, controlled, human-powered flight), the Albatross came about after two years of human-powered flight experiments.  The main differences between the two aircraft were a reduced wing area and shorter wing chord on the Albatross, along with the switch from an aluminum main structure to carbon fiber-reinforced plastics.

“The initial construction and load-testing of the Albatross components was particularly interesting, since carbon fiber was at that time a somewhat exotic material and there was very little practical knowledge of how to craft parts out of it,” said Albatross pilot Bryan Allen.  “There was a lot of camaraderie in the team, amusing stories of past experiences, and a fair amount of brainstorming about how to solve particular problems on the airplanes and come up with better and lighter and more-reliable solutions.”

Albatross test-flights began in the summer of 1978.  Early flights at Shafter airport near Bakersfield, CA, yielded positive results; however, flying near the ocean at Long Beach proved more challenging, with a series of malfunctions requiring repairs and improvements. Eventually, the Albatross became able to make 15-minute flights, twice the length of previous attempts. Following further improvements, including a new propeller design, Allen piloted the Albatross for a 13-mile, 69-minute flight over Harper Lake in April 1979. “The one-hour, nine-minute, three-second flight at Harper Lake was my favorite single flight,” Allen said.

As a long-time long-distance cyclist, Allen was built for the kind of challenge presented by the Gossamer aircraft. In order to prepare for the Albatross’s English Channel flight, Allen trained both on the road (40-80 miles per day) and using an ergometer (stationary) training bike. The ergometer training enabled Allen to quantify his performance and improvement.

The years of development and months of training came to a head very early on the morning of June 12, 1979. The media began to gather around Paul MacCready at around 2:30 a.m., where the Albatross was being assembled in the dark. Without hesitation, Paul calmly and slowly explained the progress of the preparations. According to Allen, “He said that shortly, the plane would take off and fly from England to France.” There was no drama or uncertainty. Paul always had a fundamental grasp of what is possible and what is not.

Just before 6 a.m., with Allen pedaling at the rehearsed 75 rpm, the Albatross lifted off the make-shift runway at The Warrens near Folkestone, Kent, and headed out over the English Channel. Calm seas and lack of wind foretold a potentially worry-free flight, but soon after take-off, the trouble began.  “I got a triple-whammy of failures,” Allen said.  First, the transmit button on the radio failed, leaving Allen unable to talk to control personnel in the chaser boats. He was still able to receive communications from them, however, and could communicate with them using hand and head motions.

Second, Allen’s water supply ran out. Due to unexpected headwinds, the flight took 49 minutes longer than planned. Without adequate water later in the flight, Allen suffered leg cramps from dehydration.  Finally, the airspeed instruments and acoustic altimeter failed when their batteries expired. Again, this was due to the flight taking longer than predicted. Without these instruments, Allen could not know his height above the water or his speed. 

As the headwind increased, so did uncertainty among onlookers that the flight would be successful. With the far shore nowhere in sight and turbulence taking its toll, the trailing Zodiac pulled into position to hook onto the aircraft and abort the flight. When he increased the aircraft’s altitude to allow the Zodiac to pull underneath the Albatross, Allen discovered the air was less turbulent higher up.  As the Zodiac got closer to the plane, Bryan kept moving away. Bryan requested another five minutes, and then another five minutes, and then another five minutes. This went on for over an hour.

The surface wind calmed slightly and the Albatross continued toward Cap Gris-Nez, France. Persisting through equipment failures, exhaustion, and careful negotiation of the rocky French coastline, Allen landed the Albatross on the beach at Cap Gris-Nez. “There were so many unknowns on that flight that I could not be certain we’d make it, but I was certain I’d use every resource in trying,” Allen said.  Beyond the pouring of champagne and the Kremer prize, the flight of the Gossamer Albatross remains a story of ingenuity and heart, 30 years later.

When the Kremer prize was originally announced, it was assumed that 20 years would pass before it was won. Paul’s optimism was what kept the project moving at such a momentous pace. He kept saying, “We’ll win it next week.” “The Condor and Albatross were dealing with fundamental physics, right at the edge of the possible. So it seemed to me they would be remembered and written about for a good long while” said Allen.  He went on to say, “I am very pleased to see that finally some of the things about efficiency and quality of life that Dr. MacCready was talking about and advocating 30 years ago are making it into our societal discourse.”

The Gossamer Albatross is currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. and the Gossamer Albatross II is on display at the The Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA. Gossamer Albatross images are courtesy of Donald Monroe.

AeroVironment, the company that Dr. Paul MacCready founded, remains committed to his philosophy of “doing more with much less,” and today is the leader in unmanned aircraft systems.