Remembering Paul MacCready, Master of Failure

Famed aerospace inventor Paul MacCready passed away last week, leaving behind several lifetimes of astonishing accomplishments from the first successful human-powered aircraft to a solar-powered “eternal” airplane and a host of other inventions including solar-powered cars, a robotic pterodactyl and tiny unmanned flyer-robots. The life of this extraordinary man has been well-covered elsewhere in traditional media and on the welb — both the New York Times and The Los Angeles Times have had especially nice obituaries– but amidst all the coverage, MacCready’s unique approach to invention has been lost in the background.

Paul MacCready built his success on failure. Years ago, I recall him explaining to me how he beat the competition to the Kremer Prize for man-powered flight. Everybody else was focused on building a plane that would fly beautifully, but MacCready’s brilliant insight was realizing that at first he would be doing a lot more crashing than flying, so he designed the Gossamer Condor to crash beautifully — to protect the pilot and be quickly repairable so MacCready’s team could move quickly down the learning curve.

The result is that MacCready literally failed forward, crashing his way to winning the Kremer Prize. The competition required days or weeks to fix their planes after a crash, while the Condor could crash and be patched-up overnight. MacCready thus was able to get in vastly more flight testing time than anyone else. By crashing as frequently as possible, he also flew much, much more than anyone else, and the rest is history.

“Out of the box” does not even begin to describe the quality of Paul MacCready’s fertile mind and myriad innovations. His ideas shook up the aerospace industry, but he didn’t stop there. Over the last decade, he devoted his energies to tackling the deeper challenges facing humanity, thinking deeply about education and the environment. We will be mining his ideas for years to come, but his life will be an inspiration for much, much longer.