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Gossamer Odyssey: The Triumph of Human-Powered Flight

by Morton Grosser, Zenith Press, St. Paul, Minn., $19.95.

As long as man has watched birds, he has dreamed of emulating them. Even after the invention of gliders, sailplanes, balloons and powered airplanes, being able to fly on one’s own power has remained a compelling but elusive human ambition. On July 9, 1921, French pilot and bicycle racer Gabriel Poulain pedaled a winged bicycle called Aviette 5 feet off the ground and glided 39 feet, then came back in a 38-foot glide to win the 10,000-franc Peugeot Prize for achieving human-powered flight for a distance exceeding 10 meters. That precedent started designers from several countries on a revived quest to achieve human-powered flight that would culminate (at least thus far) in Bryan Allen’s pedal-powered flight in a contraption called Gossamer Albatross across the English Channel on June 12, 1979, flying 22.25 statute miles in 2 hours, 49 minutes.

Morton Grosser, who participated in the experiments that led to Gossamer Albatross and its predecessor, Gossamer Condor, summarizes the 20th-century realization of a millennia-old dream in Gossamer Odyssey. The softcover book begins with a brief but comprehensive summary of the French and German efforts in the 1920s and 1930s. The bulk of the work, of course, is devoted to the evolution of Gossamer Condor and Gossamer Albatross by Paul MacReady and his design team. While the frail-looking ultralight products of these magnificent men and their human-powered flying machines seem to exist in a quaint parallel universe to that of jumbo jets, stealth bombers and space travel, they nevertheless represent in their own way pushing the envelope. Any enthusiast of aviation history who still harbors that ancient urge will find Gossamer Odyssey a fascinating survey of the dedicated individuals who explored yet another of flight’s frontiers.


Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.