consecrating his life to aviation research, Samuel Pierpont Langley
(born in 1834), had distinguished himself with his work on physic
and astronomy, and by publishing a book concerning "Experiments
This eminent personality who was the secretary of the renowned
Smithsonian Institute in Washington, could not ignore the new
wave of enthusiasm to give wings to the ending ninetieth century.
Closely studying the work of Clément Ader and Otto Lilienthal,
he began building flying scaled models, propelled by rubber band
motors, and having the particularity of a double set of wings
mounted in the tandem configuration.
Walker and Brown had previously invented this configuration, but
Langley did not depart from it for about ten years, during which
time he built countless models of this type. So many in fact,
that this configuration of tandem wing machines, soon became known
as the "Langley type". As Ader would borrow the Latin name "avion"
from "avis" meaning bird, Langley would name all his apparatuses
"Aerodrome" derived from the Greek "aerodromoï" meaning sky racer.
Langley himself built his "aerodrome number 5" and achieved some
success. On May 6th 1896, his apparatus flew (without
a pilot) for over a minute, and came back to earth without damages.
This experiment was repeated on several occasions, under the watchful
eyes of Graham Bell, another genius of the era who invented the
telephone. Graham bell was extremely impressed with Langley's
machine. The "aérodrome 5" had a wingspan of 4.10 meters, weighing
about 145 kilograms, tandem wing configuration, and a one horsepower
steam engine driving two propellers located between the wings.
For takeoff, Langley had developed a unique technique. Considering
that he had a better chance of recovering his airplane intact
by performing the tests over water, he catapulted his machine
from a houseboat anchored on the Potomac River.
In 1898, the United states were at war with the Spanish in Central
America. The US Congress offered Langley a grant of $50,000.00
to build an airplane with a controllable engine. Samuel Langley
however faced the same problems as those of his rivals: mainly
the difficulty in obtaining a lightweight engine developing enough
He called on Charles Manly, an engineer who conceived a radial
engine developing 52 horsepower with a weight of 155 kilograms.
Those were rare performance for the era. Langley had been convinced
early in life, that the internal combustion engine would offer
more performance in terms of power/weight ratio than the steam
engine. He then began working on his new machine with provision
for a pilot this time.
On October 7th 1903, the airplane was ready for a test
flight with a pilot. Great care had been taken in the construction,
and Langley's airplane was similar in configuration to the preceding
models: tandem wings, and engine in center position driving two
propellers mounted between the wings. With Manly at the controls,
the airplane was catapulted, but nosed dive immediately into the
river without harm to pilot and machine.
The accident was attributed to a strut catching part of the floating
Langley decided to conduct the experiment anew on December 8th
1903. This time, immediately following the launch, the machine
entered a vertical climb, the aft wing broke off, and the airplane
crashed into the river. The structure had failed due to the stress
sustained on takeoff, and also due to the powerful engine. This
time the airplane could not be salvaged, and the funds had been
Nine days later on December 17th, Wilbur and Orville
Wright succeeded where so many other had failed.
It is a certainty that Samuel Langley played an important role
in the United States aviation history. However, we must recall
that contrary to the Wright Brothers, he had directed most of
his efforts on propulsion, with little thoughts on airplane control.
So, even if the "aerodrome" could have flown, it would have been
Samuel Langley never recovered from his failure; he died demoralized
on February 28th 1906. He will only achieve glory posthumously
when in 1917 the United States would named one of the most prestigious
air base in America in his honor, and the base that would become
NACA later NASA flight test center.