August 22 – Happy Birthday to an Aviation Pioneer

Posted on August 22, 2014

You may have heard about Wilbur and Orville Wright as the guys who invented powered flight (in other words, airplanes). But surely you know that lots of other people were fiddling around with their own designs and inventions for powered flight at the same time.

Today's famous birthday, Samuel Pierpont Langley, born on this date in 1834, seemed likely to succeed over the others—even over the Wright brothers. Langley was an American astronomer and physicist, and his unmanned tandem-wing plane flew 4,200 feet in late 1896. It was such a promising start that the U.S. War Department gave him $50,000 to develop a piloted airplane. The Smithsonian pitched in an additional $20,000.

Langley decided that it would be safest to fly over water, so he spent almost half of the start-up money building a houseboat and a catapult on the houseboat.

A cat-a-what?

A catapult is a contraption that is designed to hurl an object into the air. Langley's aircraft needed to go from a dead stop to 60 miles-per-hour, the speed necessary for flight, in just 70 feet. Since that would be impossible to do with the engines then available, Langley decided that a catapult would be needed to achieve the speed.

You probably know that most modern airplanes use long runways so that they can slowly achieve the speed needed for flight. Most runways are at least 6,000 feet long. 

But Langley's idea wasn't completely cuckoo; modern aircraft carriers sit on the ocean and use four catapults to launch airplanes into the air. And floating platforms for launching planes were used within ten years of the invention of the airplane.

Langley's tandem-wing aircraft had
one wing forward and one wing
behind, rather than two wings stacked.
Still, Langley did not succeed with his idea. His airplane, which he called an aerodrome, had a more powerful motor than that used by the Wright brothers, but both of his test flights ended in disaster. 

The first flight, on October 7, 1903, ended when the wing of the plane clipped the catapult and the aerodrome plunged into the river...A reporter wrote that the plane flew “like a handful of mortar.”  

The second flight, on December 8, 1903, ended when the rear wing and tail broke apart as it left the catapult. This time, the engineer / test pilot almost drowned in the Potomac River...but was (thankfully) rescued.

Some reporters and readers poked fun at the aerodromes' failures. A worker from the War Department concluded that Langley was still far from the goal of powered, controlled flight—and that it would take a team of experts and many more thousands of dollars to reach the goal.

Notice that the Wright brothers
built an airplane with "stacked
wings." This is called a biplane.
But then, just a few days later, on December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers achieved the goal with an airplane that cost just $1,000 to build!

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