The Éole

Today, 121 years ago, Frenchman Clement Ader’s steam-powered airplane flew for the first time. Yes, you are correct in your math if you said that was 13 years before the Wrights flew. And yes, it was a steam-powered airplane.

Ader was an electrical engineer who also worked in the field of mechanical engineering.      During the latter part of the 1800s, he became interested in aviation and airplanes. His investigation and research turned to the mechanical problems of flight in the 1880s; like many, he approached the problem with an eye on the way birds flew.

His first airplane, the Éole, he constructed in 1886. It looked very much like an oversized bat, weighed about 650 pounds, and derived power from a steam engine of Ader’s own design. Many recognize the Éole as the first airplane to takeoff on its own power. The engine produced 20 horsepower, and like the Wright’s Flyer of the next decade, provided aerodynamic control through wing warping.

When the airplane flew this day 121 years ago, there was no pilot. Still, it took off and flew uncontrolled for approximately 160 feet, without a pilot. Why Ader did not build on his early unmanned success and go on to become the first to fly, history only knows.

Most who have studied aviation history know the Wrights went on to claim the fame of flying first. Like Ader, they used an engine of their own design, but theirs was a gas-powered internal combustion engine.

The irony of the Wrights and Ader is that the Wrights, shunned by the American political system, went to France to sell their airplane. The French were excited about the possibilities of the airplane, and they make advancements in aviation. Later, the Wrights return home to Ohio.

As we move into the First World War, many nations further develop the airplane. Technology advances as we move into the 1920s and 30s.

While engines increase in power, they tend to remain the standard internal combustion engine. Other forms of power fall by the wayside. But the idea of steam-powered airplanes still soldiers on.

In 1933, the Besler Steam Airplane flies.

Brothers George and William Besler build and fly a prototype steam biplane based on a Travel Air 2000 airframe. The engine is a two-cylinder steam engine designed by the Doble Steam Motors Company and further refined by the Beslers.  It is a heavy engine, weighing about 500 pounds; it produces only 150 horsepower.

A unique feature of the engine is that the pilot could reverse the engine while running. Essentially, the pilot could stop the propeller, and reverse the rotation to provide braking for short landings, or for backing up the airplane on the ramp. It could also be reversed inflight.

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The Besler brothers introduced and demonstrated their airplane at the Oakland Airport with several flights. Many observed the flights on April 12, 1933. Local and national press documented the pre- and post-flight activities, as well as filming the flights.

Other advantages to the steam engine include clean emissions and very quiet operation. As we move into the 21st Century, quite a number in the industry are asking serious questions about how we are going to power the airplanes of the future.

Lead-based fossil fuels are losing favor, but there are few options with regard to the engines presently in our fleet today. The problem reduces down to the question of replacing the fuel, or replacing the entire system—both power plants and fuel.

It will be an interesting next decade while we figure out the answers to these questions.


©2011 J. Clark

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