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At 8:39 on the morning of June 12, the Gossamer Albatross came skimming in over the surf at Cap Gris-Nez near Calais on the northern coast of France and settled gently onto the beach. The Mylar cockpit was peeled away from around the exhausted pilot and he was gently lifted out. Waiting schoolchildren clapped and cheered. Someone thrust a bottle of champagne into the pilot's hands and he took a ceremonial swig. Mme. Anne Coupin, of the nearby village of Wisan, handed him a small bouquet and kissed him on both cheeks. "Magnifique!" she said. The pilot, shyly accepting that assessment, murmured, "Wow! Oh, wow!"
It was indeed a wow of an occasion. Two hours and 49 minutes earlier, with no propulsive force but 26-year-old Bryan Allen's long, powerful legs pumping away inside the cockpit suspended beneath the Albatross' 96-foot wide wings, the delicate craft had lifted off from Folkestone, England, and headed out over the Channel. During the 23-mile flight Allen—a Californian who took delight in signing " Bryan Allen, pilot and engine, Gossamer Albatross" for autograph seekers—had fought off fatigue and dehydration, had nearly been downed four times by air turbulence that buffeted his craft as it flew mere feet above the waves, had been forced to make a detour around a supertanker and had lost part of his communications system. Once he even had hand-signaled to his support boats that he was aborting, but by pedaling furiously he was able to regain altitude, and he waved them off.
For his epochal flight, Allen will collect a share of the $210,000 prize offered for the feat. An enthusiastic London Daily Telegraph compared the accomplishment with the first flight across the Channel in the infancy of aviation: "The glory is that [ Allen] made it, and not all the great advances of aeronautics since Bleriot should make us for one moment blas�. In fact, is not Mr. Allen's achievement somewhat more impressive? When Bleriot crossed the Channel in 1909, he flew an airplane with a 25-horsepower internal combustion engine at between 150 and 300 feet and at 40 miles per hour.... Mr. Allen had only his frantically pumping legs to help him."
As Allen was quick to note, he also had the benefit of a brilliant design by Dr. Paul MacCready, 53, the California physicist who had created not only the Albatross but also its predecessor, the Gossamer Condor. That was the plane Allen had pedaled around a 1.15-mile figure-8 course in 1977 in history's first human-powered flight of any real significance, and it won an $86,000 prize put up by British industrialist and flying enthusiast Henry Kremer.
The Albatross was built solely to win a subsequent prize Kremer had offered for a Channel crossing. The craft weighs only 75 pounds and what looks as if it should be the plane's tail is stretched delicately out in front as a stabilizing airfoil nose. The propeller is located behind the cockpit, gently pushing. The wingspan is about 2� feet more than that of a DC-9, and the landing gear consists of two tiny wheels weighing one ounce each. The steering controls and much of the cord used to reinforce the frame are made of Kevlar, a space-age fiber, the 20 pulleys in the steering system are molded of Derlin, another plastic, and the wings are made of fabulously thin (.0005 of an inch) Mylar, which is used in the manufacture of recording tapes.
Bespectacled Bryan Allen also seemed to be well designed to pedal Albatross into history. He was a champion bike racer in high school and at Cal State Bakersfield, and he is an accomplished skier and hang-glider. He is also a bachelor and a biologist, and his fiercest epithet is "heavens!" For the Channel flight Allen wore running shorts, a life jacket over his bare chest, a bicycling helmet and running shoes. Counting the bananas, apples, hard rolls and one pint of water he consumed before takeoff—"Fuel for the engine." Allen had quipped—MacCready estimated his 6-foot pilot's takeoff weight at 141 pounds.
Under Kremer's rules the craft had to be heavier than air. In addition, it could not be assisted by motors, propellants, gases or ground crew. In-air launches were also prohibited. The only allowable propulsion would be the power of the onboard crew. The flight could leave the English mainland at any point and land anywhere on the mainland of France, but the trip would have to be continuous. No part of the craft could be jettisoned in flight. One could fly as low as desired, but not higher than 160 feet—that altitude limit intended to discourage glider pilots from seeking out a thermal current and gliding to France.
The Gossamer Albatross was built in Pasadena, Calif. and tested through April, it takes about a half horsepower to take off and about a three-tenths horsepower to keep the plane going at about 11 mph," Allen says. This is comparable to pedaling a racing bike at 20 mph on a level road with no wind.
In a final test, Allen flew the Albatross for 13 miles—a hop of one hour and nine minutes duration—across California's Harper Dry Lake. He said he probably could have kept pedaling for four hours if he had to.
"It was obvious that the plane could fly the Channel," MacCready says. "But to do that was going to take a lot of logistics and communications and organization beyond my resources." So he brought in Du Pont, whose products were already in the craft anyway. "Once they got going, we had the resources to do it right," MacCready says. All told, Du Pont probably invested $200,000 in the project.