The Wright/Smithsonian Controversy
The Flight of the
Langley Aerodrome
 

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 Aerodrome 

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s morning dawned on 28 May 1914, the “Aerodrome A” perched like a giant dragonfly on the edge of Lake Keuka, surrounded by journalists, photographers, even a videographer. Members of the scientific elite and Washington DC power structure were also there, among them Charles Doolittle Walcott, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and Albert Zahm, the director of the recently reopened Langley Aerodynamical Laboratory. They carefully spun the event for the media, explaining why they were attempting to fly the infamous Langley Aerodrome eleven years after two highly-publicized, unsuccessful, and nearly-catastrophic launch attempts. 

A cool breeze blew down the lake, gently rocking the four tandem wings that sprouted from the Aerodrome’s central framework. It was time to go. As the sun crept higher in the sky the winds would kick up. With a pronounced 12-degree dihedral between the pairs of 22-foot wings, even a modest crosswind could flip the old aircraft if it got under a wing. Workmen from the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company of Hammondsport, New York lined up along the pontoons and outriggers recently added to the airframe. They lifted the half-ton aircraft a foot or so above the ramp, duck-walked it into the water and turned it into the wind.

Glenn Curtiss waded out, stepped onto the braces between the forward pontoons and climbed into the nacelle that hung beneath the framework. He settled into the cockpit and tested the familiar Curtiss controls – wheel, post and shoulder yoke borrowed from one of his early pushers. This system had replaced the dual trim wheels that had steered the original Aerodrome. Workmen stood in the shallow water behind the forward wings and swung the twin propellers. The old Manly-Balzer engine sprang to life – or as much life as it had left. It had been damaged by age or carelessness and only produced two-thirds of the 52 brake horsepower it had generated in 1903. To compensate, Curtiss had added a new carburetor and high-tension magneto ignition. He also reshaped the props, giving them a “bent-end” profile to increase the thrust. He hoped it would be enough.

Curtiss advanced the throttle and the Aerodrome moved forward. As it gained speed, the wings fluttered a little but showed none of the elasticity that had plagued Langley’s 1903 flight attempts. Curtiss had replaced Langley’s flimsy, hollow-core ribs with pieces of solid wood, laminated to hold the camber. He had also doubled-up on the spars. In addition to the central spar atop each wing, there was a second beneath it that stretched a third of the wing length. He replaced the slender guy posts (to which the wing rigging was attached) with sturdy A-frames and moved them backwards to better coincide with the center of pressure. All of this, when combined with the brace work between the wings and the pontoons, greatly strengthened the wings and made them less likely to deform or collapse as they had eleven years before. 

The Aerodrome gained speed steadily, but painfully slowly. Curtiss was well out on the lake and far from his audience when pontoons finally went up “on the step” and the aircraft began to dance on the waves. He pulled back on the wheel, praying there was enough lift. In rebuilding the wings, he had altered the camber from a deep 1/16 to a much gentler 1/28. He did this by shortening the ribs, eliminating a section of each wing forward of its leading spar. This also narrowed the chord, raised the aspect ratio and created a rounded leading edge. Finally, he had abandoned the semi-porous “percaline” used to cover the wings in 1903 and substituted airtight doped cotton. The lift was increased, if only just enough. The reconstructed Aerodrome left the surface of Lake Keuka for a little over 3 seconds and traveled 150 feet through the air. It wasn’t much, but it was a flight. A motorboat met Curtiss on the lake and towed the aircraft back to the ramp.

Walcott and Zahm were effusive. However short, they declared, this hop-flight vindicated its inventor. If Langley’s Aerodrome was flyable now; it could have flown in 1903. The media was less than impressed. The flight had occurred far out on the lake, too remote for the photographers or the filmmaker to capture it. Curtiss attempted a second flight after breakfast, but it was aborted when the Aerodrome threw a propeller.

Because it was paramount that this event generate favorable press, Curtiss had the media back five days later. This time he knew where to put them along the lake shore so they could see the Aerodrome lift off. He made several flights, none of them lasting more than a few seconds. But the press got what they wanted, photos of Langley’s Aerodrome with a little daylight showing between pontoons and water. They dutifully printed the photos along with Walcott’s and Zahm’s pronouncements. According to the June 6, 1914 edition of Scientific American:

 “The machine and its engine has been shipped from the Smithsonian Institution to the Curtiss factory in early April and was reclothed without change of size or shape. The framing, the engine, propellers, wings, rudders, and controls are, therefore, just as Langley left them… The brief successful flight of May 28th proved that Langley’s invention had been the first machine in history capable of prolonged free flight with a passenger. A great scientist and inventor, misunderstood and persecuted in his lifetime, is vindicated.”
 


The 1903 Langley "Aerodrome A" being made ready for flight on the shore of Lake Keuka 28 May 1914.

Standing in front of the Aerodrome, from left to right, Charles Walcott, Glenn Curtiss, Walcott's daughter Helen, Albert Zahm and C.C. Wittmer, a Curtiss pilot.

Curtiss workmen pick up the Aerodrome and walk it into the lake.

Glenn Curtiss in the cockpit of the Aerodrome on 28 May 1914. Note the control wheel, post, and shoulder yoke are the same as were used in the Model D, Triad, and other early Curtiss aircraft.

Workmen get ready to swing the props and start the engine. Curtiss is standing up in the cockpit.

The Aerodrome lifts off from the surface of Lake Keuka.

The Aerodrome is towed by motorboat back to to the shore.

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