Deadulus project documented in The Fullness of Wings
THE FULLNESS OF WINGS
Written by Gary Dorsey.
Viking Press, 345 pages, $19.95.
By TIM TOWNSEND
THE RECORD-SETTING 1988 FLIGHT of the MIT Daedalus Human Powered Aircraft was a triumph of engineering and the human spirit. The flight itself, however, was just the final step in what had been an exhausting preparation of design, construction, and logistics.
Gary Dorsey's new book, The Fullness of Wings, tells the story of the people who led the first successful human-powered flight efforts at MIT and how their experiences led up to the Daedalus. Dorsey makes his documentary effort a complete one, not willing to gloss over the conflicts that always arise within groups working under intense pressure.
The pressures that mounted during the Daedalus Project came from many sides. Sponsors demanded more and more recognition, and instant results. The MIT bureaucracy nitpicked over contractual obligations and the use of facilities. Team members faced pressures from classes and job obligations.
In this atmosphere of intense pressure, blowups were bound to happen. Dorsey chronicles how these happened sometimes legitimately, sometimes over trivial matters. Readers expecting to find a glowing account of a rosy, cheery project that happened easily will be surprised by Dorsey's frankness. Some participants in the Daedalus story come out looking bad in The Fullness of Wings. Among these are the sometimes-greedy sponsors, the sometimes-temperamental athletes, and the MIT administration.
The MIT administration is depicted as, at worst, holding the program back and, at best, keeping out of the way. Indeed, at some points MIT almost turned its back on the project, perhaps hoping it would go away and quit demanding the special attention of faculty and administrators.
However badly the administration is depicted, the academic atmosphere is treated worse. The Institute is shown as a place which has forsaken its roots, where engineers no longer really get involved in hands-on engineering. It was doubted whether anyone in the aeronautics and astronautics department even really knew how to build an airplane. In contrast to the stifling academic atmosphere, Dorsey describes the attitudes of the hackers and their adventures from underground hacking to rooftop pranks. (He does a good job of it, too, except when he describes Smoots running from the "Harvard side" of the Harvard Bridge to the "MIT side.")
Against the backdrop of a stifling academic life, the principal figures of the future Daedalus project grew out of the rebellious MIT Rocket Society. Dorsey's book starts with the childhood background of Daedalus project manager John Langford and how his interests in model rocketry led him to meet Harold "Guppy" Youngren and Bob Parks of the MIT Rocket Society. Langford eventually ended up as a freshman at MIT and found to his surprise that Guppy and "Parkie" were still there (on the "infinite undergraduate" plan). The drudgery of academia was soon pushed aside to concentrate on what was important: building rockets. The three pursued this hobby to the fullest, winning in national and international rocketry competitions.
After stumbling upon the remains of an early MIT human-powered aircraft (HPA), the BURD, and concluding it unfliable after several trials, they decided to build their own HPA. (And do it in 90 days!) This led to the construction of the Chrysalis, the first MIT HPA to successfully fly. After the Chrysalis came the Monarch, which won the Kremer HPA speed prize in 1983. Along the way, the team encountered other hands-on engineers who would become key players in the Daedalus adventure.
The larger challenge presented by the proposed Daedalus flight led to larger problems in its execution. More money had to be raised, more workers had to be recruited, and more arrangements made. The second half of Dorsey's book deals with the progression of the project and tells how just as one problem would be solved, another would pop up.
Poor weather, waffling sponsors, demoralized pilots, a crash -- all these problems put stress on the participants, enough to put permanent bad blood between some who were supposed to be working together to produce a flyable aircraft. Fortunately, the dream of the Daedalus flight kept the team together long enough to realize their goal. Dorsey finishes the book with his account of the actual record-setting flight and its bittersweet ending, filled with enough suspense to keep even a mystery fan glued to his seat.
Dorsey does a very thorough job with his first published book. A writer for the Hartford Courant, he wrote a couple of articles about the Daedalus project for his newspaper before being swept up into the life of the project. Dorsey spent more time with the team than any other non-official member and traveled to Greece with the team to witness the historic flight.
After the completion of the project, he began work on the book full-time and spent considerable time interviewing members of the project on their experiences. There is so much information in the book that probably no one on the Daedalus team can read it without learning something new about one of his colleagues. Dorsey errs only in a few minor places, mostly misplaced identities in relating a couple of anecdotes.
The Fullness of Wings is an entertaining and informative account of the formation and execution of the Daedalus Project. Frank and honest, it should be required reading for anyone entering the engineering management field. Although melodramatic at times, it gives a detailed picture of the personal and technical problems which naturally arise in any engineering group, as well as the satisfaction of success which comes after those problems have been surmounted.
(Tim Townsend '90 was a member of the Daedalus Project Team from 1987 to 1988.)