The first solar-powered flight across the English Channel

On July 7, 1981, the Solar Challenger – an aeroplane designed by American aviation engineer Paul MacCready – became the first solar-powered craft to successfully cross the English Channel. A.S.Ganesh takes you along to witness this historic flight and how MacCready made it happen…

Updated - July 17, 2024 02:26 pm IST

Published - July 07, 2024 12:50 am IST

Stephen Ptacek waves as the Solar Challenger is about to land at RAF Manston on July 7, 1981 after the world s first ever solar-powered flight to cross the English Channel.

Stephen Ptacek waves as the Solar Challenger is about to land at RAF Manston on July 7, 1981 after the world s first ever solar-powered flight to cross the English Channel. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Our concerns over climate change are real. While the long-term shifts in temperature and weather pattern were nature-driven for the longest period of time, human activities have been the major driver since the 1800s. At the crux of the issue is the burning of fossil fuels, which is accompanied by the production of heat-trapping gases. 

Even though there are still some naysayers, most of the world has woken up to this fact. Some, however, caught on to it much earlier and began to bring the world’s attention to this important matter. American aviation engineer Paul MacCready was one such person. 

Paul MacCready, right, standing beside Bryan Allen, who powered MacCready’s human-powered aircrafts.

Paul MacCready, right, standing beside Bryan Allen, who powered MacCready’s human-powered aircrafts. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Born to fly

Born in New Haven, Connecticut on September 29, 1925, MacCready was a national champion model-plane builder in the 1930s. When he was still 16, he had already obtained his pilot’s licence. By 1947, MacCready graduated with a B.S. degree in Physics from Yale University. He followed it up with a M.S. degree in Physics in 1948 and a PhD in Aeronautics in 1952 from the California Institute of Technology. 

He set up his own firm, AeroVironment, in Pasadena, California and headed it. The company was set up with the objective of working on the improvement of air quality and the conservation of energy, while also focussing on deriving power from wind and water. 

Followed by an observer on a cycle and a gaggle of helpers running alongside, pilot Bryan Allen gets the Gossamer Albatross off the ground during a test flight at the Royal Air Force Base at Manston, Kent.

Followed by an observer on a cycle and a gaggle of helpers running alongside, pilot Bryan Allen gets the Gossamer Albatross off the ground during a test flight at the Royal Air Force Base at Manston, Kent. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The Gossamers

MacCready first made a mark for himself on August 23, 1977 when his Gossamer Condor succeeded as the first human-powered aircraft. Bryan Allen, a bicyclist and hang-glider enthusiast, powered the craft by pedalling, piloting the Gossamer Condor over the required course to win the £50,000 Henry Kremer Prize. 

MacCready and Allen were at it again on June 12, 1979 when the Gossamer Albatross designed by the former was piloted by the latter over a distance of 37 km to cross the English Channel. With that flight, which lasted 2 hours and 49 minutes, MacCready won the £100,000 Kremer Prize for the first human-propelled flight across the English Channel.

The Solar Challenger during one of its failed attempts on June 14, 1981

The Solar Challenger during one of its failed attempts on June 14, 1981 | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Gloomy June

The solar-powered flight across the English Channel, however, wasn’t easy. MacCready designed the Solar Challenger for this purpose – a 210 kg craft with a wingspan of 47 feet that was powered by more than 16,000 solar cells. Stephen Ptacek, a 28-year-old pilot from Golden, Colorado, was tasked with piloting this craft. 

Having decided on crossing the English Channel to test his solar-powered craft, MacCready learnt soon after his arrival in France in 1981 that the sun wasn’t as reliable in Europe, as it was in his native California. After two weeks of overcast skies, the first attempt was made on June 14 when the sun finally made its presence felt both in France and Britain. Stormy weather and turbulence due to the presence of nosey press people in nearby helicopters, however, meant that the Solar Challenger landed just an hour into the flight. 

A spokesman for Dupont, sponsors of the Solar Challenger, said: “The press photographers in a helicoptered light aircraft broke the rules by coming too close,” when questioned about the hasty landing.

A spokesman for Dupont, sponsors of the Solar Challenger, said: “The press photographers in a helicoptered light aircraft broke the rules by coming too close,” when questioned about the hasty landing. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Gauging that the winds were not in favour for a trip from France to England, MacCready had the Solar Challenger crated and shipped to Manston, England, to attempt a trip in the other direction. A gloomy June weather-wise, however, meant that conditions weren’t favourable for this trip. 

Faster than expected 

With the prevailing winds changing direction again, MacCready had the Solar Challenger packed in crates and shipped back to France. The successful flight finally took place on July 7, but it wasn’t without incident. 

Several failed starts saw the Solar Challenger sink back to the ground before it finally took off and reached the skies. Despite looking like a life-sized version of a child’s toy aeroplane, the aircraft took full advantage of abundant sunlight and favourable winds to cruise at an altitude of 11,000 feet and maintain an average speed of 48 km/h. In fact, Ptacek covered the 258 km distance between the Pointoise Cormeilles airport, near Paris, to the Manston Royal Air Force Base in just 5 hours 23 minutes, surprising even MacCready. 

Solar Challenger, just about to land at Manston Royal Air Force base on July 7, 1981, after successfully compleating the first crossing of the English Channel by a solar plane.

Solar Challenger, just about to land at Manston Royal Air Force base on July 7, 1981, after successfully compleating the first crossing of the English Channel by a solar plane. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

When speaking to the press following the success of his trial, MacCready made it clear that the flight was a means to demonstrate the capabilities of solar power. ‘‘I do not pretend that a solar aircraft is a practical alternative for air travel, but we wanted a dramatic flight to get people thinking about solar power,’‘ he had said. ‘‘It is not the panacea for our energy problems, but it is certainly a start.’‘

More than four decades after MacCready’s success with the Solar Challenger, we are still grappling with the energy situation as we seek cleaner sources of power. MacCready might have been an early mover, but the need of the hour now is collective movement in the right direction.

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