Steam Aeroplanes.

Updated: 8 Oct 2009
More on Besler engine
"On the basis of the weight of the power plant alone steam power plants for aircraft are precluded. On the basis of economy alone, they are again precluded. On the basis of the resistance of the cooling surface required alone, they are precluded. On the basis of the sum of these three considerations they are absolutely impossible."

From the report on steam propulsion for aircraft published by the American National Advisory Comittee on Aeronautics. (date unknown)

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The very first successful aeroplanes were powered by internal-combustion engines. They were naturally inefficient and heavy by today's standards, but there was still no doubt at the time that they were a far more practical power-plant for aviation than the most sophisticated steam engine available.

However, there were a few later attempts to demonstrate that steam had something to offer the aeroplane. 1934 in particular seems to have been a propitious time. Now read on...

STEAM AEROPLANES BEFORE THE WRIGHT BROTHERS.

There were many earlier attempts to build steam powered aeroplanes; here are a few notes on some of them. Bear in mind that the Wright brothers were the first to really solve the problem of making an aeroplane controllable in three dimensions, and if any of the early attempts outline below had actually taken flight, their pilots would have lived to regret it. Though not for long.

THE MOSHIASKY STEAM PLANE: 1884
Alexandr Fyodorovich Mozhaisky, was a Russian naval officer, aviation pioneer, researcher and inventor. He was born in 1825 in Finland. He built a steam-powered plane in 1882, but it is generally agreed it did not achieve sustained flight. A correspondent sent me this: "The Moshaisky steam plane engine is in the aviation museum in Monino near Moscow and as far as I remember one or two other aviation steam engines."


STEAM AEROPLANES AFTER THE WRIGHT BROTHERS.

THE HUETTNER STEAM PLANE: 1934

Left: The Huettner Steam Plane.

Details from The Daily Telegraph for 16 April 1934, as reproduced in Steam Car Developments and Steam Aviation for June 1934.

I Am Not An Aircraft Designer, but to me these specifications seem highly optimistic.

Left: The Huettner Steam Plane.

More details from The Daily Telegraph for 16 April 1934; the second half of the extract.

The sad fate of the Berlin correspondent is probably explained by the following fact; in January 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor, ie head of the German government. Clearly his rearmament plans at that time included steam aviation...

Further details of the Huettner project are proving hard to find, and for that very reason I think it can be safely assumed it was not a success.

Some details of the revolving boiler power-plant can be found on The Rotary Boiler Page.


THE BESLER STEAM PLANE: 1934

This is probably the best-known of the steam aeroplanes. Besler fitted his steam power plant to a "Standard Travelair" biplane at Emeryville, California.

Left: The Besler Steam Plane being fuelled.

From "Floyd Clymer's Steam Car Scrapbook" Bonanza Books.

Left: The Besler power plant.

The engine was a two-cylinder compound in V-configuration, rated at 90 HP, fed with steam at 1130 psi and 430 degC from a coil-tube boiler burning oil fuel. The condenser worked at atmospheric pressure.

The propellor was driven directly at 1350 rpm.

From the British journal "Flight" 30th July 1942.

Left: The Besler Steam Plane.

From "Steam car Developments and Steam Aviation" No 28, June 1934.

Unfortunately this report is long on waffle but short on technical detail.

Left: The Besler Steam Plane.

Left: The Besler Steam Plane.

The emphasis on noiseless planes is not as daft as it sounds. In 1934 the main method of detecting aeroplanes was by acoustic location, and effective radar was some years in the future.

Left: The Besler Steam Plane.

This appears to be a separate article. It makes some odd claims, namely that it is impossible to stall a steam engine in flight; one would have thought it equally impossible to stall an airborne IC engine in the way you might a car engine. Presumably this is nothing to do with aerodynamically stalling the plane.

I see no reason why a steam power plant should be unaffected by atmospheric conditions. I should have though that the thinner air at altitude would affect the performance of both the boiler and the condenser.

Interesting point about being able to reverse the propellor though.

Left: The Besler Steam Plane.

Somehow the idea of making a forced landing and chopping down trees for fuel does not seem too convincing to me. If there are lots of trees, isn't that going to make landing in one piece rather difficult? And surely green wood won't burn very well?

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