Steam Powered Aircraft Flies

Really. Believe it or not, a successful aircraft flew using a steam engine for power. Built by Travel Air Manufacturing Co. and modified by Besler Steam Laundry to promote their business, the aircraft first flew on April 12th, 1933 over Oakland, California.

The original Travel Air 2000 was known as the 'Wichita Fokker' because of it's role in numerous Hollywood movies about WWI. It was designed by Lloyd Stearman, and built by his partners Walter Beech and Clyde Cessna. In fact, over half the aircraft built between 1924 and 1930 were produced by their company.

Nathan C. Price, a former Doble Steam Motors engineer contributed to the modified design, and following its unexpectedly favorable reception Price went to work for Boeing, but the company dropped the idea of a steam airplane in 1936. Price later worked for Lockheed where his experience developing compact burners for steam boilers helped him design Lockheed's first jet engine.

Perhaps the strangest feature of the steam powered biplane was how quietly it flew. People on the ground reported they could hear the pilot when he yelled to them from overhead. But it suffered from one major flaw: it used water faster than it used fuel oil and couldn't carry enough water to keep the boiler full for extended flights.



Anonymous said…
The name of the Besler company
was at the time Besler Systems
and they were unrelated to the
laundry business. They were in the
steam engine and boiler business.

Best regards,

Jean Vezina
Tom said…
Steam Car Developments
and Steam Aviation
VOL. III. JUNE, 1934 NO. 28.

The Besler Steam-Driven Aeroplane.

At the Oakland Airport, California, U.S.A. a short time ago a silent 'plane slanted across the sky, showing a thin trail of white vapour. It was so silent in operation that spectators heard the pilot shout a greeting to those on the ground. He banked into a turn, and was watched sliding to a landing, and, with the propeller spinning backwards, roll to a stop in less than a hundred feet. This was Mr. William Besler giving his first demonstration flight, and it was, we think, for the first time in history that a man had flown in a steam-driven aeroplane.

This steam driven machine is the achievement of two brothers, Messrs. George and William Besler, and is the result of experimental pioneer work carried out by them during the past three years. Through their endeavours - undertaken with a good deal of secrecy - the steam-driven aeroplane, the possibilities of which have long been discussed, has become an accomplished fact. Our American correspondent, to whom we are indebted for the following particulars, tells us that passengers on the steam 'plane in full flight are able to carry on a conversation as easily as when riding in an open motor car. The pilot, when flying at 200 ft. altitude, called to the spectators below, and heard their answering calls.

During the demonstration Mr. Besler made three flights, taking off, circling about, and landing, to show the ease of control. What was generally remarked upon was the almost complete silence. The constant, wearing vibration of the internal combustion engine was gone; the elastic pull and push of the steam engine had supplanted it. Each time as the machine swooped down and the landing wheels touched ground, the pilot pulled back a small lever at the side of the cockpit and the steam engine at the nose of the 'plane instantly reversed, whirling the propeller backwards, creating a powerful braking effect which reduced the landing runs to a very short distance. This is one of the fundamental characteristics of a reversing steam engine and that which can never be imitated by an explosion motor. There is, moreover, the fact that the reversed propeller applies its braking effect above the centre of gravity of the machine, and thus prevents it nosing over in a quick stop. Brakes applied to the landing wheels of a steam-driven plane are not necessary. On an I.C. 'plane landing wheel brakes suddenly applied have been a cause of somersaulting, and a ground crash. It is said that the Besler 'plane, coming in at 50 m.p.h., can sit down, and come to a stop, in a field scarcely 100 feet square.

Turning now to the power-plant, this, of course, is of Doble Steam Motors and Besler's design and manufacture; and its main details are already familiar to many of our readers. The production of steam automatically, at a practically constant pressure and degree of superheat, from the forced-feed or flash steam generator, and the patented electric controls, by which it is accomplished; are fully described in the Doble-Besler Patent Specification, which we reproduce on another page.

The steam generator is fed with water by a steam donkey pump, the exhaust from which is first taken through a Feed-water heater, before finally passing into the condenser. The burner is similar to that described in our May 1931 issue of S.C.D. The whole of the power plant is installed at the nose of the aeroplane, with the engine forward of the steam generator. The engine is a 2-cylindered compound, double-acting of a V-design, with the cylinders H.P. 3 inches and L.P. 5 inches bore, by 3 inches stroke. It develops 150 B.H.P. at 1,200 lbs. (temperature 800 degrees Fahr.) steam pressure, and abut 1,650 revolutions per minute. The engine was not built particularly for lightness; it weighs 180 lbs., and by using special aircraft materials, its weight could be lessened.

The steam generator tubing is coiled into flat spirals, and totals abut 500 feet in length. The lower coils, into which the feed-water is introduced, are of tube about 3/8 of an inch bore, and the upper coils from which the superheated steam is drawn off, are about 5/8 of an inch bore. The water supply to the coils is thermostatically controlled to keep the steam temperature constant irrespective of the steam pressure.

Under the fuselage nose is the condenser, which is simply a section of an ordinary petrol car radiator, and this is said to be sufficient to recover more than ninety per cent. of the water from the exhaust steam.

At the start of a flight, the pilot climbs into the cockpit and flips over a small switch. The electric blower immediately goes into action, driving air mixed with oil spray into the combustion chamber. Here, an electric spark ignites the mixture and sends a sheet of flame roaring downwards among the spiral boiler coils.. A minute or so later, steam pressure is high enough for take-off. All the pilot has to do from then on, (as regards the power unit) is to operate the throttle and the reverse lever.

The tests have shown that ten gallons of water is sufficient for a flight of 400 miles. By increasing the size and efficiency of the condenser, the Besler Brothers believe they can make this amount of water last indefinitely. The prospect of steam 'planes on the skyways opens up fascinating possibilities. Burning, as they do, ordinary furnace oil of so high a flash point that it merely smoulders if struck by the flame of a blowtorch, steam power plants have little to fear from the menace of fire. Moreover, fuel oil is cheap, sufficient for a hundred-mile trip can be bought for 1s. 8d.

At any height above a thousand feet a steam-driven 'plane is quite inaudible from below, this would give it particular value for military work. Noiseless war 'planes have long been sought; but attempting to muffle the noise of an I.C. aerial engine reduces its power to such an extent that the plan is impracticable. A steam power plant, silent by nature, would permit of long-distance raids above the clouds by 'planes giving off no tell-tale drone of motors to warn the enemy, or to aid in directing anti-aircraft fire.

It is interesting to speculate upon the possibilities of steam on the airways of the stratosphere. In the thin atmosphere of this region, ten miles, or more, above the surface of the earth, experts predict, the high speed transport ships of the future will fly. The chief stumbling block at present is the internal combustion motor. It steadily loses power as it ascends, and it has been said that a motor, which delivers 150 H.P. at sea level, will only give about half that power when it has climbed to 20,000 feet altitude. At 30,000 feet the sea level horse power of 150, will probably have dwindled to about 45 horse power. And you are then only half way to the stratosphere!
Tom said…
(DISCOVERY, July 1933, p. 220)

Steam Power for Aircraft

The Besler System

What is believed to be the first flight ever made in a steam-driven aeroplane has been achieved in California. By special arrangement "Discovery" is able to publish the first particulars of this interesting development.

Five years ago the residents of a quiet London street were startled one Sunday afternoon by the shriek of a steam whistle, as a powerful motor car accelerated to forty miles an hour and was then seen to reverse at the same speed. It was, in fact, the Besler steam car, developed by two young Americans, who had brought the machine to England in order to negotiate the European rights in the invention. One of their first visits was to Mr. John Benn, then Editor of Discovery, who had been a fellow student at Princeton with Mr. George Besler and his brother William in 1922. At the University the inventive bent of these two men was not suspected, but after graduating in engineering they were soon absorbed in the work on steam power, which has resulted in the development of the Besler system. Its chief applications are, naturally, to railway locomotion, buses, and marine power plants, but the steam car, followed this spring by the first steam-driven aeroplane, has shown in spectacular form the remarkable degree of efficiency attained by this particular system.

The successful flight of the aeroplane, believed to be the first ever made in a steam-driven machine, was accomplished in California on April 12th by Mr. William Besler and now his brother has again come to Europe in connexion with this latest development. Except for a photograph of the machine, no information has yet appeared in the English Press and by special arrangement with the inventors, Discovery is now able to give the first particulars.

The idea of using steam for aircraft dates, of course, from the early days of the steam engine, and about a century ago an English engineer named Henson projected a large aeroplane to be driven by steam. He under-estimated the power required, and his plan fell through, but one of his associates, Stringfellow, succeeded in flying a model steam aeroplane. Experiments were later made by Maxim, and Langley flew another model by steam in 1896.

An airship propelled by steam was flown with some success by Giffard in 1852, but not until this year was a flight carrying a passenger made in a steam-driven aeroplane. This spectacular achievement took place at the Municipal Airport at Oakland, California, in a biplane originally built for a Curtiss internal combustion engine, which was taken out and substituted by the Besler power unit for this experiment. There was found to be ample room, and while considerable ingenuity was required, no difficulty was experienced in making the steam plant compact enough to fit into the available space. The installation, however, included many parts taken from a Doble steam-car which were unnecessarily heavy and in some cases too large for the purpose. No attempt was made to develop either extraordinary power or to make it extremely light. The immediate objective was to build a power plant capable of flight.

The unit consists of a two-cylinder engine, which delivers approximately 150 h.p. at 1,625 r.p.m. The weight is about 180 lbs., and no serious attempt was made to make the engine lighter. The boiler consists of a single tube approximately 500 feet long, and is built according to a patented design, the chief improvement over previous boilers being that the temperature remains constant regardless of the pressure, and the control is entirely automatic. The efficiency is very high.

The engine is fitted with a steam feed water pump, the exhaust steam from this pump being used to preheat the feed water entering the boiler. The power plant condenses almost 99 per cent of the water used, so that very little water is lost, and ten gallons are sufficient for an ordinary flight under reasonably cool weather conditions. To start the boiler it is merely necessary to press a switch which starts an electric blower motor, causing air and fuel to be forced through the burner and into the boiler, where ignition is effected by spark. From then on the automatic controls operate all the necessary functions, and the pilot has only to move the throttle and reverse lever, there being one position for forward and one for reverse.

Several years of laboratory work preceded the actual flight, during which period several engines and steam generators were developed. When the power plant was finally installed in the aeroplane it had already run some thirty hours on the dynamometer and after installation in the fuselage it was operated for about twenty hours more. All of its characteristics were well known, and flight was to all practical purposes a foregone conclusion. Furthermore, prior to dismantling the original power plant, the aeroplane was carefully weighed and measured by students in the Boeing School of Aeronautics, the centre of gravity being exactly located for all conditions of loading, to insure that as close a comparison as possible could be obtained between the original Curtiss engine and the new steam installation. When the aeroplane was re-erected it was checked to determine its conformity to the previous figures, and the hub of the same propeller used with the petrol engine was modified to fit the new steam engine.

A report on Mr. Besler's pioneer flight was made for Aero Digest by Mr. A. F. Bonnalie, head of the Boeing School of Aeronautics, one of the largest flying services in the United States. He points out that the first flights, while short, were extremely impressive.

From the time the fires were started until the engine was run up, not more than five minutes elapsed. A little time was taken further to test out the reverse gear and to be sure that all apparatus was operating correctly; then the plane taxied down the field into position for the take-off. The take-off was normal in every respect except that the absence of noise was noticeable. In fact when the plane left the ground, it was the observer's impression that the machine was not getting up sufficient speed. It flew strongly, however, and circled overhead a couple of times. When under full power no more noise was noticeable than is apparent with an aeroplane gliding with the engine off - merely the swish of the air could be heard. Even when operating on the ground at full throttle, the propeller made very little noise.

While the first flights were made at low altitude, the climbing angle was noticeably steep and the aeroplane was obviously under full control of the pilot. As he approached for a landing and crossed the border of the field, the propeller rotation ceased, and backward rotation slowly started. After touching the ground the pilot gave it full reverse throttle, whiche, together with the brakes fitted to the particular aeroplane, brought it to a stop very quickly. Mr. Besler again took off and after a short flight simulated a forced landing, then took off once more round the field and landed again with a short run. Being satisfied with the preliminary tests, the proprietors propose to give more extensive demonstrations and to make quantitative tests.

- o O o -
Max Williams said…
Does steam-powered aircrafts bring good contribution to the environment? I’m just wondering if it could be substituted to fuel.

-Avionic testing | AvionTEq
Anonymous said…
Lyman Gilmore,Jr

Lyman Wiswell Gilmore, Jr. (June 11, 1874 Beaver Creek, Thurston County, Washington- February 18, 1951) was an aviation pioneer. In Grass Valley, California, USA, he built a steam-powered airplane and claimed that he flew it on May 15, 1902. Due to the requirement of a heavy boiler and the dependency on coal as a power source, the flights would have been short. Proofs of his claim were lost in a 1935 hangar fire.

Lyman built a steam-powered airplane and may have flown it on May 15, 1902.

There are photographs from 1898 showing Gilmore's machine, but none showing it in the air. The claims of the aircraft achieving flight are unconfirmed, and given the weight evident by the grounded aircraft photos, the possibility of flight is highly disputed.
Lyman Gilmore was in contact with other flight pioneers like Samuel Langley and, eventually, the Wright brothers.

In 1902, Gilmore was granted two patents on steam engines, the first of which was granted in 1902. He invented in other areas too, for example a rotary snowplow. On March 15, 1907, Gilmore opened the first commercial airfield, Gilmore Airfield, in Grass Valley. There is now middle school named in his honor on the site of the airfield.

Local legend says Gilmore wore the same long coat for years and was never far from it. It continues to say that when he was involuntarily hospitalized for his last illness the coat and all of his long-worn clothing were burned. While he had never accumulated much money, it was said that all he had was sewn into the lining of that coat and was destroyed with it.
chris guerriero said…
Great post.. I love to read everything here.

Thanks a lot to Anonymous and Tom for such an inspired answers, i really enjoy to read it
Ted said…

At what altitude could a steam engine fly? A steam engine would need oxygen to keep the boiler flame alive. Would the thin air of, say, thirty thousand feet still keep such an engine running?
Tom Harnish said…
I suppose you could turbo-charge or super-charge (or both) the boiler just like we do with internal combustion engines. So, yes I'd say you could, at least theoretically, fly behind a steam engine at 30,000'. If you could find a way, steam engines can convert about half of incoming energy into torque, but gas-powered internal combustion engines can only convert about a quarter.

The problem would remain, though, how to contain or replenish the water. And there's the issue that water boils at 160º instead of 212º at 30,000', but if the whole thing was pressurized with a turbo- or supercharger that wouldn't be an issue. In fact, if you get the pressure up you can superheat the steam, as they do in nuclear-powered ships and submarines, and get even more efficiency.

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