The Year People Learned to Fly

The Year People Learned to Fly
Clips from the 1978 Academy Award-winning documentary short, The Flight of the Gossamer Condor, used by permission.
Clips from the 1978 Academy Award-winning documentary short, The Flight of the Gossamer Condor, used by permission.

One of the great home-built family maker projects celebrated its 30th anniversary on Aug. 23, 2007: the flight of the world’s first truly successful human-powered airplane, the Gossamer Condor.

The plane was designed and built by Dr. Paul B. MacCready, along with his family and friends, on weekends over a year’s time in 1976–77. The goal was to win the first Kremer Prize, a $100,000 reward for the first human-powered airplane that could take off using human power, fly over a 10-foot marker, make a complete left turn and right turn around two pylons spaced half a mile apart, and then fly over the 10-foot marker again at the end of the mile-long flight.

The original plans were sketches and dimensions in a notebook. MacCready, an expert in aerodynamics and a working inventor, had written an article on hang glider safety for his sons, and while daydreaming on a vacation, he suddenly realized that if he could make a hang glider with all the dimensions tripled, it would be an airplane needing only 1/3 horsepower to fly, the maximum energy that we humans can generate.  

The major breakthrough was taking all the necessary large wing structure (usually a box grid for rigidity) from the inside of the wing and moving it to the outside in a huge triangulated structure — namely, aluminum poles held together with piano wire. This one idea dropped the wing loading — the weight-to-wing-area ratio — by a factor of ten over all other designs in history.  


I filmed MacCready’s project for my first independent documentary. I met MacCready through one of his neighbors, and when I researched other attempts at human-powered flight, I learned that if they could build it, MacCready’s wing-loading formula meant this plane would do something no other human-powered plane had achieved. And build it they did — a 70-pound (empty) airplane with a 96-foot wing span.

With 120-pound bicycle racer/hang glider Bryan Allen as pilot and motor, the Gossamer Condor flew into aviation history, winning the Kremer Prize. The airplane is in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, Paul MacCready has become known as the “father of human-powered flight,” and my documentary, The Flight of the Gossamer Condor, received the 1978 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.

For more information about the documentary and ordering information, visit










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