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The Flying Ghost of the Potomac River

Ghosts of Scary DC Blog 12 The Flying Ghost of the Potomac River © 2018 by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg, Ghost with a Blog #ghosts

Samuel Pierpont Langley, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, backed by the US government with $50,000 and his own Smithsonian Institution granting him $20,000, attempted to make the first working piloted heavier-than-aircraft. His models flew, but his two attempts at piloted flight were not successful. Langley began experimenting with rubber-band powered models and gliders in 1887. His first success came on May 6, 1896 when his Number 5 unpiloted model flew half a mile after a catapult launch from a boat on the Potomac River. Aviation historians consider this to be the world’s first sustained flight by a powered heavier-than-air craft. He designed a powerful engine, 50 hp, compared to the 12 hp of the Wright Brothers.

Samuel Pierpoint Langley simply tried to make everything four times larger than his successful models, but air resistance and the strength of materials don’t work quite that way. He thought the future was in making powerful gasoline engines, but this made his airplanes very heavy.

Langley sought safety by practicing in calm air over water, the Potomac River. This required a catapult for launching. The craft had no landing gear, the plan being to crash into the water after demonstrating flight. Langley gave up the project after two crashes on take-off on October 7 and December 8, 1903. Manly was recovered unhurt from the river. Newspapers made great sport of the failures.

The Aerodrome was heavily modified and flown a few hundred feet by his friend Glenn Curtis in 1914, as part of his attempt to fight the Wright brothers’ patent, and as an effort by the Smithsonian to rescue Langley’s aeronautical reputation. Nevertheless, courts upheld the patent. However, the Curtiss flights emboldened the Smithsonian to display the Aerodrome in its museum as the first aircraft “capable” of powered, sustained, manned flight. That action triggered a decades-long feud with the surviving Wright brother, Orville.

The Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, with their own money, $2,000, got a bigger bank for the buck by employing wind tunnels to test model designs.  Unlike Langley, they correctly made mathematically the right-sized aircrafts from their models. They created their own light-weight engine using aluminum which had become available thanks to new technology. They took off from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903 and the rest are history.

If you look carefully, on some moon-lit you can see Langley’s aerodrome take off and other nights hear the noisy splash when it crashes into the water.


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