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Published: May 28, 2013
 / Summer 2013 / Issue 71

 
 

Flight of the Drone Maker

By their own account, the engineers and executives who run AeroVironment are pragmatists. They are makers and builders, not TED talkers. In some respects, CEO and chairman Tim Conver and his fellow members of the company’s top leadership team resemble their company’s founder. But in other ways, they couldn’t be more different. For one thing, Paul MacCready was a dreamer.

MacCready, who died of metastatic melanoma in 2007, was a passionate environmentalist who loved airplanes, hence his company’s somewhat awkward full name, which is often shortened to AV. As a boy, he built and flew model airplanes competitively. As a young man, he piloted gliders, winning soaring championships in the United States and Europe. Dyslexic, slight of stature, and physically uncoordinated, Paul MacCready was no one’s idea of a charismatic leader. Yet by the time of his death he had been called the poet laureate of flight. The National Aeronautics Association and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1980 named him “Engineer of the Century,” and Time magazine called him one of the 20th century’s 100 most creative minds.

After earning a doctorate in aeronautics from the California Institute of Technology, MacCready started his first company in the then new field of weather modification, and was the first to use small instrumented aircraft to study storm interiors. After selling the company, he started AeroVironment in 1971. He intended it to be an environmental consulting firm, and it was for a while. 

The first major shift in the company’s fate came in 1976. Deeply in debt after acting as cosigner for a bad loan, MacCready heard about a cash prize of £50,000 (US$87,700) being offered by British industrialist Henry Kremer for the first human-powered flight. And before he realized it, MacCready was setting himself and his company in an entirely new direction: upward.

On a cross-country trip with his family that year, MacCready had an aeronautical epiphany while watching vultures circling above the desert. Although vultures are weak flyers relative to hawks and other birds, the shape and length of their wings allows them to stay aloft for long periods. In that vulture’s glide, MacCready saw what a person could do given the right wingspan. More specifically, he realized that if he could increase the wingspan of a plane without increasing its weight, a fit bicyclist could likely pedal fast enough to move the craft forward and generate lift. He would now test—and prove—that theory.

MacCready assembled a wonderfully heterogeneous team to build the Gossamer Condor, as his first human-powered plane was called. There were Ph.D. engineers and physicists like himself, but also a swell of self-taught enthusiasts and nerdy polymaths from the lively southern California hang-gliding scene. Several “recruited” themselves, drawn by MacCready’s reputation in international glider competitions—and by the heroic nature of his quest.

The team rallied around a shared vision. They were out not to simply win the Kremer prize, but to break a barrier that had tantalized humankind at least since Leonardo da Vinci first penned drawings of human-powered airplanes. Many people in the group had already achieved a high level of personal mastery in the design, building, and flying of gliders and ultralight powered airplanes. Human-powered flight was an irresistible next step.

Earlier runs at the Kremer prize had attempted to beat gravity through exquisitely elegant aerodynamic wing designs, which inevitably made the aircraft too heavy to fly very far. MacCready approached the problem from the perspective of making the most of the human pilot’s limited power. Build the aircraft light enough, he reasoned, and at the slow flying speeds he projected, the aerodynamics would hardly matter. The Gossamer Condor was a crude assemblage of piano wire, aluminum tubes, bicycle parts, Mylar film, and a propeller. But it was light, efficient, and effective. It flew successfully just a year after work began; others had spent decades to no avail.

 
 
 
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Resources

  1. Paul Ciotti, More with Less: Paul MacCready and the Dream of Efficient Flight (Encounter Books, 2002): A reporter’s take on the story of human-powered flight and the characters involved in it, along with the MacCready team’s accomplishments in solar-powered aircraft and flapping-wing ornithopters, including a life-sized pterodactyl replica.
  2. Scott Corwin and Rob Norton, “The Thought Leader Interview: Lawrence Burns,” s+b, Autumn 2010: More insights from the coauthor of Reinventing the Automobile.
  3. Morton Grosser, Gossamer Odyssey: The Triumph of Human-Powered Flight (Houghton Mifflin, 1981): An insider’s account of the development of human-powered flight, culminating in the launches of the Gossamer Condor and the Gossamer Albatross.
  4. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at: strategy-business.com/innovation.