The Real Bird Man: Background information when reading My Dad's A Birdman

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My Dad's A Birdman

by David Almond, Polly Dunbar

My Dad's A Birdman by David Almond, Polly Dunbar
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2008, 128 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2011, 128 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jo Perry

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
The Real Bird Man

Print Review

Aeronautical engineer and inventor Paul MacCready (1925-2007) earned the title "birdman" becoming internationally known in 1977 as the "father of human-powered flight" when his Gossamer Condor made the first sustained, controlled flight by a heavier-than-air craft powered solely by its pilot's muscles. For the feat he received the $95,000 Henry Kremer Prize; and the Condor is now housed at the Smithsonian.

Two years later, his team created the Gossamer Albatross, another 70-pound craft with a 96-foot wingspan that, with DuPont sponsorship, achieved a human-powered flight across the English Channel. That flight, made by "pilot-engine" Bryan Allen, took almost three hours. It won the new Kremer prize of $213,000, at the time the largest cash prize in aviation history.

The Gossamer Albatross II at Dryden Flight Research Center in 1980Next, MacCready and his team developed two more aircraft, this time powered by the sun. In 1980, the Gossamer Penguin made the first climbing flight powered solely by sunbeams. In 1981, the rugged Solar Challenger was piloted 163 miles from Paris to England, at an altitude of 11,000 feet. These solar-powered aircraft were built and flown to draw world attention to photovoltaic cells as a renewable and non-polluting energy source for home and industry, and to demonstrate the use of DuPont's advanced materials for lightweight structures.

In 1983, MacCready's team built the 70-pound, human-powered (with on-board battery energy storage) Bionic Bat, partly to vie for new Kremer speed prizes and partly to explore new technologies leading toward practical, long-duration, unmanned vehicles and quiet, slow-speed, piloted aircraft. In 1984, the Bionic Bat won two speed prizes.

In 1984, the team developed a large radio-controlled, wing-flapping, flying replica of the largest animal that ever flew: the long-extinct pterodactyl Quetzalcoatlus northropi, whose giant wings spanned 36 feet. The QN replica became the lead "actor" in a 1986 wide-screen IMAX film titled "On the Wing", a film depicting the interrelation between the developments of biological flight and aircraft.

Interesting Link: A website, dedicated to Paul MacCready and his work.


Image: The Gossamer Albatross II at Dryden Flight Research Center in 1980

Article by Jo Perry

This article was originally published in May 2008, and has been updated for the March 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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