Popular Science Monthly/Volume 73/November 1908/Experiments with the Langley Aerodrome




THE experiments undertaken by the Smithsonian Institution upon an aerodrome, or flying machine, capable of carrying a man have been suspended from lack of funds to repair defects in the launching apparatus without the machine ever having been in the air at all. As these experiments have been popularly, and of late repeatedly, represented as having failed, on the contrary, because the aerodrome could not sustain itself in the air I have decided to give this brief though late account, which may be accepted as the first authoritative statement of them.

It will be remembered that in 1896 wholly successful flights of between one half and one mile by large steam-driven models, unsupported except by the mechanical effects of steam engines, had been made by me. In all these the machine was first launched into the air from "ways," somewhat as a ship is launched into the water, the machine resting on a car that ran forward on these ways, which fell down at the extremity of the car's motion, releasing the aerodrome for its free flight. I mention these details because they are essential to an understanding of what follows, and partly because their success led me to undertake the experiments on a much larger scale I now describe.

In the early part of 1898 a board, composed of officers of the army and navy, was appointed to investigate these past experiments with a view to determining just what had been accomplished and what the possibilities were of developing a large-size man-carrying machine for war purposes. The report of this board being favorable, the Board of Ordnance and Fortification of the War Department decided to take up the matter, and I having agreed to give without compensation what time I could spare from official duties, the board allotted $50,000 for the development, construction and test of a large aerodrome, half of which sum was to be available immediately and the remainder when required. The whole matter had previously been laid before the board of regents of the Smithsonian Institution, who had authorized me to[1] take up the work and to use in connection with it such facilities of the institution as were available.

Before consenting to undertake the construction of this large machine, I had fully appreciated that, owing to theoretical considerations, into which I do not enter, it would need to be relatively lighter than the smaller one; and later it was so constructed, each foot of sustaining surface in the large machine carrying nearly the same weight as each foot in the model. The difficulties subsequently experienced with the larger machine were, then, due not to this cause, but to practical obstacles connected with the launching, and the like.

I had also fully appreciated the fact that one of the chief difficulties in its construction would lie in the procuring of a suitable engine of sufficient power and, at the same time, one which was light enough. (The models had been driven by steam engines whose water supply weighed too much for very long flights.) The construction of the steam engine is well understood, but now it would become necessary to replace this by gas engines, which for this purpose involve novel difficulties. I resolved not to attempt the task of constructing the engine myself, and had accordingly entered into negotiations with the best engine builders in this country, and after long delay had finally secured a contract with a builder who, of all persons engaged in such work, seemed most likely to achieve success. It was only after this contract for the engine had been signed that I felt willing to formally undertake the work of building the aerodrome.

The contract with the engine builder called for an engine developing 12 brake horsepower, and weighing not more than 100 pounds, including cooling water and all other accessories, and with the proviso that a second engine, exactly like this first one, would be furnished on the same terms. The first engine was to be delivered before the close of February, 1899, and the frame of the aerodrome with sustaining surfaces, propellers, shafting, rudders, etc., was immediately planned, and now that the engine was believed to be secured, their actual construction was pushed with the utmost speed. The previous experiments with steam-driven models, which had been so successful, had been conducted over the water, using a small house-boat having a cabin for storing the machine, appliances and tools, on top of which was mounted a track and car for use in launching. As full success in launching these working models had been achieved after several years spent in devising, testing and improving this plan, I decided to follow the same method with the large machine, and accordingly designed and had built a house-boat, in which the machine could not only be stored, but which would also furnish space for workshops, and on the top of which was mounted a turntable and track for use in launching from whatever direction the wind might come.

Everything connected with the work was expedited as much as possible with the expectation of being able to have the first trial flight before the close of 1899, and time and money had been spent on the aerodrome, which was ready, except for its engine, when the time for the delivery of this arrived. But now the builder proved unable to complete his contract, and, after months of delay, it was necessary to decrease the force at work on the machine proper and its launching appliances until some assurance could be had of the final success of the engine. During the spring and summer of 1899, while these delays were being experienced in procuring suitable engines, former experiments on superposed wing surfaces were continued, time was found for overhauling the two steam-driven models which had been used in 1896, and the small house boat was rebuilt so that further tests of these small machines might be made in order to study the effect of various changes in the balancing and the steering, equilibrium preserving and sustaining appliances, and the months of June, July and a portion of August were spent in actual tests of these machines in free flight.

A new launching apparatus following the general plan of the former overhead one, but with the track underneath it, was built for the models, and it was used most successfully in these experiments, more than a dozen flights in succession being made with it, while in every case it worked without delay or accident. As soon as these tests with the models on this underneath launching apparatus were completed, that for the large machine was built as an exact duplicate, except for the enlargement, and with some natural confidence that what had worked so perfectly on a small scale would work fairly on a large one.

It was recognized from the very beginning that it would be desirable in a large machine to use "superposed" sustaining surfaces (that is, with one wing above another) on account of their superiority so far as the relation of strength to weight is concerned, and from their independence of guy wiring; and two sets of superposed sustaining surfaces of different patterns were built and experimented with in the early tests. These surfaces proved, on the whole, inferior in lifting power, though among compensating advantages are the strength of a "bridge" construction which dispenses with guy wires coming up from below, which, in fact, later were the cause of disaster in the launching.

It was finally decided to follow what experiment had shown to be successful, and to construct the sustaining surfaces for the large machine after the "single-tier" plan. This proved to be no easy task, since in the construction of the surfaces for the small machines the main and cross ribs of the framework had been made solid, and, after steaming, bent and dried to the proper curvature, while it was obvious that this plan could not be followed in the large surfaces on account of the necessity, already alluded to, of making them relatively lighter than the small ones, which were already very light. After the most painstaking construction, and tests of various sizes and thicknesses of hollow square, hollow round, I-beam, channel, and many other types of ribs. I finally devised a type which consisted of a hollow box form, having its sides of tapering thickness, with the thickest part at the point midway between contiguous sides and with small partitions placed inside every few inches in somewhat the same way that nature places them in the bamboo. These various parts of the rib (corresponding to the quill in a wing) were then glued and clamped together, and after drying were reduced to the proper dimensions and the ribs covered with several coats of a special marine varnish, which it had been found protected the glued joints from softening, even when they were immersed in water for twenty-four hours.

Comparative measurements were made between these large cross ribs, 11 feet long, and a large quill from the wing of a harpy eagle, which is probably one of the greatest wonders that nature has produced in the way of strength for weight. These measurements showed that the large, 11-foot ribs ("quills") for the sustaining surfaces of the large machine were equally as strong, weight for weight, as the quill of the eagle; but much time was consumed in various constructions and tests before such a result was finally obtained.

During this time a model of the large machine, one fourth of its linear dimensions, was constructed, and a second contract was made for an engine for it. The delay with the large engine was repeated with the small one, and in the spring of 1900 it was found that both contract engines were failures for the purpose for which they were intended, as neither one developed half of the power required for the allotted weight.

I accordingly again searched all over this country, and, finally, accompanied by an engineer (Mr. Manly), whose services I had engaged, went to Europe, and there personally visited large builders of engines for automobiles, and attempted to get them to undertake the construction of such an engine as was required. This search, however, was fruitless, as all of the foreign builders, as well as those of this country, believed it impossible to construct an engine of the necessary power and as light as I required (less than 10 pounds to the horsepower without fuel or water). I was, therefore, forced to return to this country and to consent most reluctantly, even at this late date, to have the work of constructing suitable engines undertaken in the shops of the Smithsonian Institution, since, as I have explained, the aerodrome frame and wings were already constructed. This work upon the engines began here in August, 1900, in the immediate care of Mr. Manly. These engines were to be of nearly double the power first estimated and of little more weight, but this increased power and the strain caused by it demanded a renewal of the frame as first built, in a stronger and consequently in a heavier form, and the following sixteen months were spent in such a reconstruction simultaneously with the work on the engines.

The flying weight of the machine complete, with that of the aeronaut, was 830 pounds; its sustaining surface, 1,040 square feet. It, therefore, was provided with slightly greater sustaining surface and materially greater relative horsepower than the model subsequently described which flew successfully. The brake horsepower of the engine was 52; the engine itself, without cooling water, or fuel, weighed approximately 1 kilogram to the horsepower. The entire power plant, including cooling water, carburetor, battery, etc., weighed materially less than 5 pounds to the horsepower. Engines for both the large machine and the quarter-size model were completed before the close of 1901, and they were immediately put in their respective frames and tests of them and their power-transmission appliances were begun.

It is well here to call attention to the fact that although an engine may develop sufficent power for the allotted weight, yet it is not at all certain that it will be suitable for use on a machine which is necessarily as light as one for traversing the air, for it would be impossible to use, for instance, a single cylinder gasoline engine in a flying machine unless it had connected to it prohibitively heavy flywheels. These facts being recognized, the engines built in the Smithsonian shops were provided with five cylinders, and it was found upon test that the turning effect received from them was most uniform, and that, by suitable balancing of rotating and reciprocating parts, they could be made to work so that there was practically no vibration, even when used in the very light frames of the aerodromes.

The engine is not all the apparatus connected with the development and delivery of power, for obviously there must be shafts, bearings, and in the present case there were also gars; and all of these parts must necessarily be phenomenally light, while all of the materials must be capable of withstanding repeated and constant strains far beyond their elastic limit. It is also evident to any one having familiarity with such constructions that it is most difficult to keep the various bearings, shafts, gears, etc., in proper alignment without adding excessive weight, and also that when these various parts once get out of alignment when subject to strain, the disasters which are caused render them unfit for further use.

The engines themselves were successfully completed before the close of 1901, and were of much more power than those originally designed; but nearly a year and a half had been spent not only in their completion, but in properly coordinating the various parts of the frame carrying them, repairing the various breakages, assembling, dismounting and reassembling the various parts of the appliances, and in general rebuilding the frame and appurtenances to correspond in strength to the new engines.

There are innumerable other details, for the whole question is one of details. I may, however, particularly mention the carburetors, which form an essential part of every gas engine, and such giving fair satisfaction for use in automobiles were on the market at the time, yet all of them failed to properly generate gas when used in the tests of the engine working in the aerodrome frame, chiefly because of the fact that the movement of the engine in this light frame must be constant and regular or the transmission appliances are certain of distortion. It was, therefore, necessary to devise carburetors for the aerodrome engines which would meet the required conditions, and more than half a dozen were constructed which were in advance of anything then on the market, and yet were not good enough to use in the aerodrome, before a satisfactory one was made. These experiments were made in the shop, but with an imitation of all the disturbing influences which would be met with in the actual use of the machine in the air, so as to make certain, as far as possible, that the first test of the machine in free flight would not be marred by mishaps or unseen contingencies in connection with the generation and use of power.

It is impossible for any one who has not had experience with such matters to appreciate the great amount of delay which experience has shown is to be expected in such experiments. Only in the spring of 1903, and after two unforeseen years of assiduous labor, were these new engines and their appurtenances, weighing altogether less than 5 pounds to the horsepower and far lighter than any known to be then existing, so coordinated and adjusted that successive shop tests could be made without causing injury to the frame, its bearings, shafts or propellers.

And now everything seemed to be as nearly ready for an experiment, as could be, until the aerodrome was at the location at which the experiments were to take place. The large machine and its quarter-size counterpart were accordingly placed on board the large house boat, which had been completed some time before and had been kept in Washington as an auxiliary shop for use in the construction work, and the whole outfit was towed to a point in the Potomac River, here three miles wide, directly opposite Widewater, Va., and about forty miles below Washington and midway between the Maryland and Virginia shores, where the boat was made fast to moorings which had previously been placed in readiness for it

Although extreme delays had already occurred, yet they were not so trying as the ones which began immediately after the work was thus transferred to the lower Potomac.

The object in constructing the quarter-size counterpart of the large machine was to duplicate in it the balancing and relative proportions of power, surface, etc., that had been arranged in the large one, so that a test of it might be made which would determine whether the large machine should be tried as arranged or the balancing and other arrangements modified. The launching apparatus, which had proved so eminently successful with the original steam-driven models in 1896, was considered a thing so well tested that it had, as I have stated, been duplicated on a suitable scale for use with the large aerodrome, and it was felt that if this apparatus were exactly similar to the smaller one it would be the one appliance least likely to mar the experiments.

In order to test the quarter-size model it was necessary to remove its launching track from the top of the small house boat and place it upon the deck of the large boat, in order to have all the work go on at one place, as it was impossible, on account of its unseaworthiness, to moor the small house boat in the middle of the river.

While this transfer of the launching apparatus from the small boat to the large one was being made, the changed atmospheric conditions incident to a large body of water over which thick fogs hung a great portion of the time, from those of a well-protected shop on the land, began to manifest themselves in such ways as the rusting of the metal parts and fittings, and the consequent disarrangement of the adjustment of the necessarily very accurate pieces of apparatus connected with the ignition system of the engine. These difficulties might have partly been anticipated, but there were others concerning which the cause of the deterioration and disarrangement of certain parts and adjustments was not immediately detected, and consequently when short preliminary shop tests of the small machine were attempted just prior to launching it, it was found that the apparatus did not work properly, necessitating repairs and new constructions and consequent delay. Although the large house boat with the entire outfit had been moved down the river on July 14, 1903, it was not until the eighth of August that the test of the quarter-size model was made, and all of this delay was directly due to changed atmospheric conditions incident to the change in locality. This test of the model in actual flight was made on the eighth of August, 1903, when it worked most satisfactorily, the launching apparatus, as always heretofore, performing perfectly, while the model, being launched directly into the face of the wind, flew directly ahead on an even keel. The balancing proved to be perfect, and the power, supporting surface, guiding and equilibrium-preserving effects of the rudder also. The weight of the model was 58 pounds, its sustaining surface 66 square feet, and the horsepower from 212 to 3.

This was the first time in history, so far as I know, that a successful flight of a mechanically sustained flying machine was made in public.

The flight was not as long as had been expected, as it was found afterwards that one of the workmen, in his zeal to insure an especially good one, had overfilled the gasoline tank, which would otherwise have enabled a flight several times as long. However, as such a flight would have given absolutely no more data than the short one did. and as the delays in getting ready for testing the large machine had already far exceeded what was expected, it was thought best not to make any more tests with the small one, as all of the data which were desired had been procured, and it was accordingly stored away and every energy immediately concentrated in getting the large machine ready for its first test, which at that time seemed only a few days away.

During all these delays it may be remarked that we necessarily resided near the house boat, and therefore in a region of malaria, from whose attacks a portion of us suffered.

I have spoken of the serious delays in the test of the small machine caused by changed atmospheric conditions, but they proved to be almost negligible compared with what was later experienced with the large one. I have also alluded to the fact that the necessarily light ribs of the large sustaining wing surfaces were covered with several coats of a special marine varnish which many tests had shown enabled the glue to withstand submersion in water for more than twenty-four hours without being affected. This water test was made with a view to guarding against the joints of the ribs being softened when the machine came down into the water, as it was planned for it to do at the close of its flight, and these submersions had apparently shown that no trouble need be anticipated from the effects of the sustaining surfaces getting wet. It is an instance of the unpredictable delays which present themselves, that when preparations had been begun for the immediate trial of the large machine, already down the river, it was found that every one of the cross ribs had been rendered almost useless by the damp, though under shelter. As it would take months to build new ones, a temporary means of repairing them was used. There were other delays too numerous to mention, but chiefly incident to working over the water, some of the principal of which were due to storms dragging the house boat from its moorings and destroying auxiliary apparatus, such as launches, boats, rafts, etc., to say nothing of the time consumed in bringing workmen to and from the scene of the experiments. The propellers were even found to break under the strain of the actual engines in the open, though they had not done so in the shop, and this is mentioned as another instance of the numerous causes of trying delay which it was impossible to foresee.

Finally, however, on the 3d of September, everything seemed to be in readiness for the experiments, and the large aerodrome was accordingly placed in position and all orders given and arrangements made for a test that day. After stationing the various tugs, launches, etc., at their predetermined positions so that they might render any assistance necessary to the engineer or the aerodrome, in case it came down in the water at a point distant from the house boat, and after the photographers, with special telephoto cameras, had been stationed on the shore in order that photographs with their trigonometrical data might be obtained, from which speed, distance, etc., might be later determined, and when every one was anxiously expecting the experiment, a delay occurred from one of the hardly predictable causes just mentioned in connection with the weather. An attempt was made to start the engine so that it might be running at its proper rate when the aerodrome was launched into free air after leaving the track, but the dry batteries used for sparking the engine, together with the entire lot of several dozen which were on hand as a reserve, had become useless from the dampness.

I have merely instanced some of these causes of failure when everything was apparently ready for the expected test, but only one who was on the spot and who had interest in the outcome could appreciate trials of this sort, and the delays of waiting for weather suitable for experiments.

It was found that every storm which came anywhere in the vicinity, immediately selected the river as its route of travel, and although a ten-mile wind on the land would not be an insurmountable obstacle during an experiment, yet the same wind on the river rendered it impossible to maintain the large house boat on an even keel and free from pitching and tossing long enough to make a test.

While speaking of the difficulties imposed by the weather, it should also be understood that to take the aerodrome in parts from under the shelter of the roof and assemble and mount it upon the upper works was a task requiring four or five hours, and that during this time a change in the weather was altogether likely to occur, and did repeatedly occur, sufficient to render the experiment impossible. Experience has shown, then, that the aerodrome should be sheltered by a building, in which it shall be at all times ready for immediate launching. During all the delay resulting from this and other causes—since it was never known on what day the experiment might take place—a great expense for tug boats waiting at a distance of forty miles from the city, was incurred, and this was a part of the continuous drain on the pecuniary resources, which proved ultimately more fatal than any mishap to the apparatus itself.

Following the 3d of September, and after procuring new batteries, short preliminary tests inside the boat were made in order to make sure that there would be no difficulty in the running of the engine the next time a fair opportunity arrived for making a test of the machine in free flight. Something of the same troubles which had

PSM V73 D475 Launch of experimental flyer at langley aerodrome.png
Fig. 1. Instantaneous Photograph of the Launch of October 7, 1903.

been met with in the disarrangement of the adjustments of the small engine was experienced in the large one, although they occurred in such a different way that they were not detected until they had caused damage in the tests, and these disarrangements were responsible for broken propellers, twisted shafts, crushed bearings, distorted framework, etc., which were not finally overcome until the first of October. After again getting everything in apparent readiness, there then ensued a period of waiting on the weather until the seventh of October (1903), when it became sufficiently quiet for a test, which I was now beginning to fear could not be made before the following season. In this, the first test, the engineer took his seat, the engine started with ease and was working without vibration at its full power of over fifty horse, and the word being given to launch the machine, the car was released and the aerodrome sped along the track. Just as the machine left the track, those who were watching it, among whom were two representatives of the Board of Ordnance,[2] noticed that the machine was jerked violently down at the front (being caught, as it subsequently appeared, by the falling ways),[3] and under the full power of its engine was pulled into the water, carrying with it its engineer. When the aerodrome rose to the surface it was found that, while the front sustaining surfaces had been broken by their impact with the water, yet the rear ones were comparatively uninjured. As soon as a full examination of the launching mechanism had been made, it was found that the front portion of the machine had caught on the launching car, and that the guy post, to which were fastened the guy wires which are the main strength of the front surfaces, had been bent to a fatal extent.

The machine, then, had never been free in the air, but had been pulled down as stated.

The disaster just briefly described had indefinitely postponed the test, but this was not all. As has been said before, the weather had become very cold, and the so-called equinoctial storms being near, it was decided to remove the house boat at the earliest time possible, but before it could be done a storm came up and swept away all the launches, boats, rafts, etc., and in doing so completely demolished the greater part of them, so that when the house boat was finally removed to Washington, on the fifteenth of October, these appurtenances had to be replaced. It is necessary to remember that these long series of delays worked other than mere scientific difficulties, for a more important and more vital one was the exhaustion of the financial means for the work.

Immediately upon getting the boat to Washington the labor of constructing new sustaining surfaces was begun, and they were completed about the close of November. It was proposed to make a second attempt near the city, though in the meantime the ice had formed in the river. However, on the eighth of December, 1903, the atmosphere became very quiet shortly before noon and an immediate attempt was made at Arsenal Point, quite near Washington, though the site was unfavorable. Shortly after arriving at the selected point everything was in readiness for the test. In the meantime the wind had arisen and darkness was fast approaching, but as the funds for continuing the work were exhausted, rendering it impossible to wait until spring for more suitable weather for making a test, it was decided to go on with it if possible This time there were on hand to witness the test the writer, members of the Board of Ordnance, and a few other guests, to say nothing of the hundreds of spectators who were waiting on the various wharves and shores. It was found impossible to moor the boat without a delay which would mean that no test could be made on account of darkness, so that it was held as well as possible by a tug, and kept with the aerodrome pointing directly into the wind, though the tide, which was running very strong, and the wind, which was blowing ten miles an hour, were together causing much difficulty. The engine being started and working most satisfactorily, the order was given by the engineer to release the machine, but just as it was leaving the track another disaster, again due to the launching ways, occurred.[4] This time the rear of the machine, in some way still unexplained, was caught by a portion of the launching car, which caused the rear sustaining surfaces to break, leaving the rear entirely without support, and it came down almost vertically into the water. Darkness had come before the engineer, who had been in extreme danger, could aid in the recovery of the aerodrome, the boat and machine had drifted apart, and one of the tugs, in its zeal to render assistance, had fastened a rope to the frame of the machine in the reverse position from what it should have been attached and had broken the frame entirely in two. While the injury which had thus been caused seemed almost irreparable to one not acquainted with the work, yet it was found upon close examination that only a small amount of labor would be necessary in order to repair the frame, the engine itself being entirely uninjured. Had this accident occurred at an earlier period, when there were funds available for continuing the experiments, it would not have been so serious, for many accidents in shop tests had occurred which, while unknown to the general public, had yet caused greater damage and required more time for repair than in the present case. But the funds for continuing the work were exhausted, and it being found impossible to immediately secure others for continuing it, it was found necessary to discontinue the experiments for the present, though I decided to use, from a private fund, the small amount of money necessary to repair the frame so that it itself, together with its engine, which was entirely uninjured, might be available for further use if it should later prove possible, and that they themselves might be in proper condition to attest to what they really represent as an engineering achievement.

Entirely erroneous impressions have been given by the account of these experiments in the public press, from which they have been judged, even by experts; the impression being that the machine could not sustain itself in flight. It seems proper, then, to emphasize and to reiterate, with a view to what has just been said, that the machine has never had a chance to fly at all, but that the failure occurred on its launching ways; and the question of its ability to fly is consequently, as yet, an untried one.

There have, then, been no failures as far as the actual test of the flying capacity of the machine is concerned, for it has never been free in the air at all. The failure of the financial means for continuing these expensive experiments has left the question of their result where it stood before they were undertaken, except that it has been demonstrated that engines can be built, as they have been, of little over one half the weight that was assigned as the possible minimum by the best builders of France and Germany; that the frame can be made strong enough to carry these engines, and that, so far as any possible prevision can extend, another flight would be successful if the launching were successful; for in this, and in this alone, as far as is known, all the trouble has come.

The experiments have also given necessary information about this launching. They have shown that the method which succeeded perfectly on a smaller scale is insufficient on a larger one, and they have indicated that it is desirable that the launching should take place nearer the surface of the water, either from a track upon the shore or from a house boat large enough to enable the apparatus to be launched at any time with the wings extended and perhaps with wings independent of support from guys. But the construction of this new launching apparatus would involve further considerable expenditures that there are no present means to meet; and this, and this alone, is the cause of their apparent failure.

Failure in the aerodrome itself or its engines there has been none; and it is believed that it is at the moment of success, and when the engineering problems have been solved, that a lack of means has prevented a continuance of the work.

  1. Dr. Langley's pioneer experiments in aerial navigation are of such contemporary interest that we reproduce this article, written shortly before his death, and printed in the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for 1904.
  2. Major Macomb, of the Board of Ordnance, states in his report to the board, that "the trial was unsuccessful because the front guy post caught in its support on the launching car and was not released in time to give free flight, as was intended, but, on the contrary, caused the front of the machine to be dragged downward, bending the guy post and making the machine plunge into the water about 50 yards in front of the house boat."
  3. This instantaneous photograph, taken from the boat itself and hitherto unpublished, shows the aerodrome in motion before it had actually cleared the house boat. On the left is seen a portion of a beam, being a part of the falling ways in which the front wing was caught, while the front wing itself is seen twisted, showing that the accident was in progress before the aerodrome was free to fly.
  4. Major Macomb again states in his official report to the board: "The launching car was released at 4:45 p.m.. . . The car was set in motion and the propellers revolved rapidly, the engine working perfectly, but there was something wrong with the launching. The rear guy post seemed to drag, bringing the rudder down on the launching ways, and a crashing, rending sound, followed by the collapse of the rear wings, showed that the machine had been wrecked in the launching; just how it was impossible to see."