A human-powered airplane. That was the challenge set forth by Henry Kremer in 1959. For 18 years, nobody could do it. But within six months of trying, Paul MacCready built and flew his Gossamer Condor (below). The difference in his approach: While others needed a year’s worth of effort for each test flight, he created a plane that he could fly, fix, and fly again in mere hours. Aza Raskin explains:*

The problem was the problem. MacCready realized that what needed to be solved was not, in fact, human-powered flight. That was a red herring. The problem was the process itself. And a negative side effect was the blind pursuit of a goal without a deeper understanding of how to tackle deeply difficult challenges. He came up with a new problem that he set out to solve: How can you build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours, not months? And he did. He built a plane with Mylar, aluminum tubing, and wire.

The first airplane didn’t work. It was too flimsy. But, because the problem he set out to solve was creating a plane he could fix in hours, he was able to quickly iterate. Sometimes he would fly three or four different planes in a single day. The rebuild, re-test, and re-learn cycle went from months and years to hours and days…

So what’s the lesson? When you are solving a difficult problem, re-frame the problem so that your solution helps you learn faster. Find a faster way to fail, recover, and try again. If the problem you are trying to solve involves creating a magnum opus, you are solving the wrong problem.

[Thanks to Tim for the link.]


MacCready is a fascinating guy. Some deeper digging — this 1991 interview with MacCready and “Unleashing Creativity,” a keynote presentation he made in 1995 — reveals more interesting lessons from the Gossamer project…

Trust your subconcious
In 1976, MacCready was in debt. He had guaranteed a friend that he’d repay a $100,000 loan he used to start a company that failed. Something in his brain clicked when he realized the £50,000 Kremer Prize for human-powered flight was still up for grabs. The value of the British pound in 1976 was exactly $2. MacCready credits his subconscious with making the connection. “The prize equaled the debt! Human-powered flight suddently became attractive, motivating,” he said. “The only big ideas I ever came up with arose from daydreaming.”

Whenever he hit a sticking point with the project, he gave up on it and went off and did other things. “This is a fairly acknowledged way of coming up with inventions,” he explained. “You get yourself all full of details, still can’t figure out how to overcome the problems, and you give up and then, suddenly, an idea pops into your mind, or a dream, or something else you are doing, shows you a way to handle it that you would never have gotten by sitting in your office and grinding along in a good linear fashion. It requires getting away, looking at it more dispassionately, or not even looking at it.”

Dropping the topic from his “conscious priority list” led him to a hobby study on a different topic, observing the speed and turning radius of various soaring birds. “The subconscious again shouted, ‘Aha!’ The light bulb of innovation glowed over my head. And the Gossamer aircraft concept emerged,” he explained.

Naiveté can trump people, time, and resources
Other teams had more people, time, and resources. They made sophisticated aircraft that didn’t come close to winning the prize. He said, “That proved that those approaches were not very good. Plus I couldn’t aspire to make such complex, elegant aircraft as they had made.”

In fact, MacCready felt his inexperience was actually a strength. “Each British team had a specialist for every discipline, and so the wing structure was constructed starting from conventional structural design by an excellent structural engineer from the aircraft industry,” he said. “I have no background in aircraft wing structure. Thus, in my naiveté, I started from first principles (with some insights left over from building indoor model airplanes in the 50s and hang gliders in the early 70s), pretended I never saw an airplane before, and came up with the Gossamer Condor approach that permitted a 96’ span vehicle to weigh only 55-70 lbs. The British engineers also knew about indoor models and hang gliders, but they knew so much about their specialty that an easier approach was not apparent.”

“I pretended I never saw an airplane before and came up with the Gossamer Condor.”

The advantage of inexperience is a concept others have pointed out too. Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp: “I just think there’s actually a huge power to inexperience. In the context of deeply entrenched problems that many people have given up on, it helps to not have a traditional framework so you can ask the naive questions. That can help you set goals that more experienced people wouldn’t think are feasible.”

Get inspiration from nature
A key turning point for MacCready came when he was on vacation. “I realized you could figure out the flight speed and the turning radius of birds soaring in circles — like you see a hawk, or a turkey vulture do — by noting the time it takes to do a turn and estimating the bank angle. Just a fun little scientific hobby. You can do it with essentially no tools. Just your wrist watch, and estimating the bank angle. From those two numbers you can calculate the flight speed and turning radius. You have to write a formula, and maybe use a little calculator for it.”

Then he began to get more interested in how birds compared with each other and hang gliders. “Did it fly at the same turn radius? What about sail planes? How much power does each take? What about the power per pound?” he asked.

The solution he came up with was a result of going back to what birds have been doing for eons. “Because the flight was so slow, turns were fairly large, I thought you’d have a wing that always had the same shape, and you could gently get around the turn,” said MacCready. “But we were having huge problems with the turn and with other aspects of stability and control. We finally did some calculations and realized the huge increase of angle, and the tack you get on one wing versus the other wing. In order to maintain lift, you have to change the angle of the wing. You just plain have to twist the wing, and it suddenly began working pretty well.”

Janine Benyus, cofounder of the Biomimicry Guild, echoes the idea of turning to nature’s models. “If you have a design problem, nature’s probably solved it already. After all, it’s had 3.8 billion years to come up with solutions,” she said. “The truth is, natural organisms have managed to do everything we want to do without guzzling fossil fuels, polluting the planet, or mortgaging the future.”

Don’t fight the last war
In warfare, generals are known for their tendency to fight the last war — using strategies from the past to achieve victory in the present. The problem is the battleground shifts. Conditions and objectives change. A bigger bomb won’t necessarily help you if you’re fighting a street-by-street battle in a city while simultaneously trying to win hearts and minds.

It’s a concept that applies to more than war. In the case of the human-powered airplane contest, the designs of other teams were hampered by the traditional idea of what it takes to build an aircraft. These teams envisioned sailplane-like aircrafts that would ensure pilot safety. Or, put another way, they were fighting “the last war” of flight.

MacCready realized this was the wrong approach. “If you take a hang glider with a 30-foot span, keep the weight around 70 pounds, and swell it up to a 90-foot span, the power you need goes down to one third of what it was, about .4 horsepower, which a good athlete can put out for some number of minutes,” he realized. “So you didn’t need an elegant sailplane-like aircraft. You could have an ugly, dirty-looking, hang glider-type plane. Quick to build.”

And he knew that if the aircraft flew slowly and barely above the ground, safety would be a moot point. He explained, “The gimmick was that you did not need the structural safety margin that you need in a regular hang glider, which is going to fly at high altitudes, so if it breaks somebody is going to get hurt. This was only going to fly at ten feet altitude at ten miles an hour. If it broke, who cared? Nobody would get hurt. But also, you could have it just on the very edge of breaking. No safety margin at all. Instead of cables, you use thin piano wire as a structural element. With that idea, and the basic idea of large and light, the problem was solved.”

“This was only going to fly at ten feet altitude at ten miles an hour. If it broke, who cared?”

During testing, accidents were common/expected. To save weight, the craft didn’t even have a door. The pilot was sealed inside. At the end of the flight, the pilot had to step through the side of the fuselage to exit. That meant damage to the plane was inevitable, even during a perfect flight.

Piano wire wasn’t the only unorthodox material used, either. Other teams were building complex wings with ribs, spars, and stringers made from very carefully carved balsa. Meanwhile, the MacCready team used carved foam, mylar, and spun carbon fiber spars. The result was a plane easy to modify and easy to repair.

There’s no substitute for real world testing
Computer models were helfpul to MacCready’s team, but they didn’t offer the same insight as seeing something actually fly. So the team went to a local pool.

“We took a couple of slabs of balsa wood and made a little model in about an hour, and pushed it around in a swimming pool,” he said. “That gave us some final insights about what our computer programs were trying to tell us.”

Data and insight are two different things, according to MacCready: “The computer programs were correct, but they didn’t give us any insight. This swimming pool event gave us the insight to complete all the stability and control problems. We came up with a final version and it worked.”

Everyone’s a creative
MacCready doesn’t buy that only some people are “the creatives” on a project. He looks to kids as proof. “I think everybody is creative,” he said. “When you’re in the playpen, fiddling around with all sorts of things, you are creative. Certainly in the sandbox you are creative. Everybody is. The way you interact with people – you are very creative in the way you manipulate adults when you’re a youngster. You can figure out just how far to push them and so on.

“Then somehow you get into school and more standard parts of culture, and so much of this erodes with most people. But really, everybody is creative and – put in the right circumstances, even if they haven’t been what you call creative – the creativity can be fanned into flame.”

at 13 later
Left: 13 year-old Paul MacCready with a gas-powered model airplane. Right: MacCready echoes the pose later in life.

* Raskin’s Fast Company piece on MacCready is titled “Wanna Solve Impossible Problems? Find Ways to Fail Quicker.” Interestingly, a couple of commenters there take umbrage with this definition of the word “fail.” Shannon O’Donnell writes, “I recommend coming up with better language than this old ‘fail faster’ notion that is just nonsense. Why on earth do we insist on calling learning that, while it doesn’t immediately produce a useful outcome, nonetheless contributes to it, a failure? This is short term thinking at it’s worst. The problem isn’t with changing how we think of failure, it’s that we need to stop overusing such an inaccurate term. As our innovation processes are necessarily iterative, they will include all sorts of prototypes, trials and demonstrations on which we build the knowledge needed to make something truly new. To borrow an illustration from a colleague – when an Olympic athlete trains to run 1500 meters under 3:33 minutes, does every time he runs at 3:34 during his training count as failure?” Another commenter, Matthew Shears, adds, ”’Rebuilding, re-testing, and re-learning’ is not failing – its prototyping, redesigning based upon trial and experience. You fail at doing something once, not multiple times.”