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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Spring 2004 > Flight Unssen

Flight Unseen

Albatross followed by two people on bicycles
The Gossamer Albatross II makes a 1980 test flight at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California.

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Rawdon’s involvement with the Gossamer Condor was largely voluntary and part time while he continued his architecture work, but when MacCready got funding from DuPont for his next, even more ambitious, project, the Gossamer Albatross, he offered Rawdon a paid, full-time position, and architecture fell by the wayside. The Albatross was intended to win a new prize set up by the same British industrialist, this one for the first human-powered plane to fly across the English Channel. For that flight, 22 times longer than that of the first contest, the plane had to be made even lighter, stronger and more efficient. That’s where Rawdon’s model-plane experience came in. The flight across the channel would take more than two hours, but in initial trials the new plane could stay airborne for no more than 17 or 18 minutes. The problem turned out to be the propeller, which was a relatively old design. “It happened that my friend Bill Watson and I had been building model airplanes using a technique that was perfect for doing high-tech, lightweight, human-powered propeller blades,” Rawdon says. “So I took MacCready’s specs for the propeller and converted them into structure. We built this thing, Bill and I, in a week. It was a styrene foam core, carbon fiber spar and Kevlar and epoxy skins. It had a diameter of 13 feet and four inches and weighed three pounds. And that was considered heavy. The whole plane weighed about 85 pounds when it flew.”

With Rawdon’s propeller, the plane was able to fly successfully across the channel, and it won the second prize. Then Rawdon and the rest of MacCready’s team moved on to an even greater challenge: building the first solar-powered plane, the Solar Challenger. Here the problem was getting enough electricity from solar cells to run the propeller. That was a significant challenge at the time, because solar cells were at best only about 12 percent efficient. Since MacCready’s cells were NASA rejects, many didn’t even meet that level of efficiency. Because sunlight produces about 100 watts of power per square foot, the best the team could hope for was 12 watts per square foot. The plane had a planned wingspan of 47 feet and a six-foot wing chord (the width of the wing from front to back), so if the wings were completely covered with solar cells, the maximum amount of power available would be about three horsepower (2,238 watts).

“MacCready did some numbers,” Rawdon says, “sort of back-of-the-envelope physics numbers, and said, ‘OK, guys, this is possible; go do it.’ So we had to make it happen. The two main aspects were that it had to be very light and efficient in order to actually fly on solar power—not just fly, but climb, which means you have to have excess power. And the flip side was we were going to fly high; we had to avoid killing somebody. So we tried to make a very lightweight and suitably strong airplane. And we succeeded at that. It is remarkable. I don’t believe anybody’s done it since—a manned, purely solar-powered airplane—partly because it’s a kooky idea and partly because the solar cells are very expensive. We did succeed in the end, and we didn’t kill anybody.” The plane flew 163 miles at an altitude of 11,000 feet.

There was no prize involved in the Solar Challenger (it was again funded by DuPont), only the satisfaction of achieving the seemingly impossible. But for Rawdon personally, there was indeed a reward in the project: it was through this work that he met his wife, Deborah Beron, a friend of one of the other crew members. Beron’s father worked at McDonnell-Douglas, and he set up a job interview for Rawdon, which led to his position with Phantom Works. His wife (now Deborah Beron-Rawdon) also eventually went to work for the company, specializing in aircraft interiors (she designed the interiors of all MD-11 jumbo jets). When McDonnell-Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997, Phantom Works came with the package. Now Deborah Beron-Rawdon is in charge of strategic development for the Pelican project.

While Blaine Rawdon has received enormous attention for the Pelican, it is not the only major project he has worked on; one of his other designs, the Blended Wing Body concept, is, if anything, even more striking than the cargo plane. It is, in some ways, the opposite of the Pelican. While the Pelican looks like a throwback to Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose, the Blended Wing Body looks like something out of Star Wars (or, more precisely, like an angelfish turned on its side). It is sleek, with no distinct fuselage. It is, essentially, a flying wing, with the wing thickened toward the center. This type of design produces a plane that is lighter, more aerodynamic, more fuel-efficient and more spacious than conventional tube-and-wings airplanes. And because it is modular by its nature (the width of the deep center body can be increased or decreased in sections) it can be adapted to a variety of military and commercial applications at relatively low cost. With a wingspan of 280 feet—roughly the same size as Airbus’ forthcoming A380 Jumbo Jet—the 800-passenger Blended Wing Body would carry 50 percent more passengers than the Airbus while using nearly 30 percent less fuel. It would be significantly lighter than conventional designs of the same wingspan and would have far better handling characteristics and lift-to-drag ratio. It would have no tail, and the engines would be rear mounted, making the interior very quiet.

Like the Pelican, the Blended Wing Body is still only a concept at Phantom Works, but it has been in the design stream longer than the Pelican and is therefore at a later stage. “I’m hopeful that the Blended Wing Body and the Pelican will go forward,” Rawdon says, “but it remains to be seen. It will be a very exciting day when either one of them has its first flight.”

In the meantime, Rawdon has another first flight to look forward to. This man who has spent his whole life absorbed by flight, designing and building planes of every description, working on aeronautical milestones and redefining what an airplane can be, has never actually flown a plane himself (excepting a few turns in the human-powered flyers and some hours in paragliders). So for now the big news in aviation is that this year, Blaine Rawdon will finally get his pilot’s license.


Photo: NASA


Online Extra

Blaine Rawdon's Website, Envision Design

Popular Science article, "Monster at 20 Feet"

NPR Weekend Edition feature, "Biggest Plane Ever"

Academy of Model Aeronautics

The Boeing Company Phantom Works

"The Flight of the Gossamer Condor" documentary

Gossamer Albatross diagrams

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