The First Man-Carrying Aeroplane Capable of Sustained Free Flight: Langley’s Success as a Pioneer in Aviation / From the Smithsonian Report for 1914, pages 217-222, Publication 2329, 1915


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A. F. ZAHM, Ph. D.



(Publication 2329)



By A. F. Zahm, Ph. D.

[With 8 plates.]

It is doubtful whether any person of the present generation will be able to appraise correctly the contributions thus far made to the development of the practical flying machine. The aeroplane as it stands to-day is the creation not of any one man, but rather of three generations of men. It was the invention of the nineteenth century; it will be the fruition, if not the perfection, of the twentieth century. During the long decades succeeding the time of Sir George Cayley, builder of aerial gliders and sagacious exponent of the laws of flight, continuous progress has been made in every department of theoretical and practical aviation—progress in accumulating the data of aeromechanics, in discovering the principles of this science, in improving the instruments of aerotechnic research, in devising the organs and perfecting the structural details of the present-day dynamic flying machine. From time to time numerous aerial craftsmen have flourished in the world’s eye, only to pass presently into comparative obscurity, while others too neglected or too poorly appreciated in their own day subsequently have risen to high estimation and permanent honor in the minds of men.

Something of this latter fortune was fated to the late Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. For a decade and a half Dr. Langley had toiled unremittingly to build up the basic science of mechanical flight, and finally to apply it to practical use. He had made numerous model aeroplanes propelled by various agencies—by India rubber, by steam, by gasoline—all operative and inherently stable. Then with great confidence he had constructed for the War Department a man flier which was the duplicate, on a fourfold scale, of his successful gasoline model. But on that luckless day in December, 1903, when he expected to inaugurate the era of substantial aviation, an untoward accident to his launching gear badly crippled his carefully and adequately designed machine. The aeroplane was repaired, but not again tested until the spring of 1914—seven years after Langley’s death.

Such an accident, occurring now, would be regarded as a passing mishap; but at that time it seemed to most people to demonstrate the futility of all aviation experiments. The press overwhelmed the inventor with ridicule; the great scientist himself referred to the accident as having frustrated the best work of his life. Although he felt confident of the final success of his experiments, further financial support was not granted and he was forced to suspend operations. Scarcely could he anticipate that a decade later, in a far away little hamlet, workmen who had never known him would with keenest enthusiasm rehabilitate that same tandem monoplane, and launch it again and again in successful flight, and that afterwards in the National Capital it should be assigned the place of honor among the pioneer vehicles of the air.

When in March, 1914, Mr. Glenn H. Curtiss was invited to send a flying boat to Washington to participate in celebrating “Langley Day,”[1] he replied, “I would like to put the Langley aeroplane itself in the air.” Learning of this remark Secretary Walcott, of the Smithsonian Institution, soon authorized Mr. Curtiss to recanvas the original Langley aeroplane and launch it either under its own propulsive power or with a more recent engine and propeller. Early in April, therefore, the machine was taken from the Langley Laboratory and shipped in a box car to the Curtiss Aviation Field, beside Lake Keuka, Hammondsport, N. Y. In the following month it was ready for its first trial since the unfortunate accident of 1903.

[1] May 6, the anniversary of the famous flight of Langley’s steam model aeroplane in 1896, is known in Washington as “Langley Day,” and has been celebrated with aerial maneuvers over land and water.

The main objects of these renewed trials were, first, to show whether the original Langley machine was capable of sustained free flight with a pilot, and, secondly, to determine more fully the advantages of the tandem type of aeroplane. The work seemed a proper part of the general program of experiments planned for the recently reopened Langley Aerodynamical Laboratory. It was, indeed, for just such experimentation that the aeroplane had been given to the Smithsonian Institution by the War Department, at whose expense it had been developed and brought to completion prior to 1903. After some successful flights at Hammondsport the famous craft could, at the discretion of the Smithsonian Institution, either be preserved for exhibition or used for further scientific study. To achieve the two main objects above mentioned, the aeroplane would first be flown as nearly as possible in its original condition, then with such modifications as might seem desirable for technical or other reasons.

Various ways of launching were considered. In 1903 the Langley aeroplane was launched from the top of a houseboat. A car supporting it and drawn by lengthy spiral springs ran swiftly along a track, then suddenly dropped away, leaving the craft afloat in midair with its propellers whirring and its pilot supplementing, with manual control, if need be, the automatic stability of the machine. This method of launching, as shown by subsequent experimentalists, is a practical one and was favorably entertained by Mr. Curtiss. He also thought of starting from the ground with wheels, from the ice with skates, from the water with floats. Having at hand neither a first rate smooth field nor a sheet of ice, he chose to start from the water.