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Enduring Heritage

The Virginia Air and Space Center is home to the
Great Aerodrome, which almost beat the Wrights into the air.

By Donald L. Lansing

Visitors can travel through the universe with the astronauts, soar through the sky in historic aircraft, or step back 400 years to when the first explorers came to the Hampton Roads, Virginia, area. All that and more is on tap at the Virginia Air and Space Center and Hampton Roads History Center, the official visitor headquarters for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Langley Research Center. Located in Hampton’s downtown waterfront area, the facility holds more than 100 historical, aeronautic and space exhibits, including the Apollo 12 command module, the Mercury 14 capsule, Samuel P. Langley’s Great Aerodrome and numerous other air and space craft that seem to float from the soaring 94-foot-high ceiling. Since opening its doors to the public on April 5, 1992, the center has educated and entertained more than 50,000 visitors from around the world, won numerous awards and been featured in national magazines. Based on the theme “From the Sea to the Stars,” the $30 million facility houses collections from Hampton Roads and NASA Langley’s diverse projects. Visitors are able to see, touch, read and hear about the role the Hampton Roads area has played in shipbuilding, aerospace research, aviation and space exploration.

The Virginia Air and Space Center’s aviation history begins with the story of Samuel Langley’s Great Aerodrome. The exhibit, which depicts the origins of aeronautics in the United States, is on loan from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. Langley is the namesake of both the nearby NASA Langley Research Center and Langley Air Force Base, headquarters of the Air Combat Command. And, as Langley conducted his flight tests on the Potomac River, north of Hampton Roads, the exhibit holds special significance in local aviation history.

The Great Aerodrome is suspended so that the details of its unique construction are readily visible. This artifact is accompanied by a statue of Langley and a short audio-visual program that presents some background on his career and accomplishments. The Aerodrome was Langley’s attempt to build the world’s first heavier-than-air, man-carrying, powered flying machine. Langley’s machine was in contention with the Wright brothers’ Flyer to be the world’s first operational airplane. Unfortunately, the project was to bring Langley only bitter disappointment and public ridicule.

Langley’s interest in aviation blossomed when he was 52, just before he joined the Smithsonian Institution as its new secretary. By then, Langley had an established international reputation as a solar physicist. He had invented an instrument, the bolometer, for measuring the spectral distribution of the sun’s radiant energy. He studied the then-unexplored infrared portion of the sun’s radiation and made the first attempt to estimate the solar constant–the rate at which the earth receives energy from the sun–a critical determinant of our climate and growing seasons. For that pioneering work, Langley received numerous medals, awards and honorary doctorates from scientific societies and universities in the United States and abroad.

In 1891, Langley began to build large, steam-powered, unmanned models of heavier-than-air flying machines, which he called “aerodromes.” Seven aerodromes subsequently were constructed, numbered 0 to 6. Each was different, but typically weighed 20 pounds, was 16 feet long and had a 12-foot wingspan. They had a unique tandem-wing configuration with four wings of identical shape, two forward and two aft. Two pusher propellers were each powered by a small 1-horsepower, alcohol-fueled steam engine. The aerodromes, which were completely uncontrolled in flight, were launched with a spring-loaded catapult from the top of a houseboat anchored in the Potomac River near Quantico, Va. The river offered an unobstructed flyover area and a large landing area.

On May 6, 1896, Langley successfully flew aerodrome No. 5 twice. A third successful flight was achieved on November 28 with aerodrome No. 6. Those flights lasted about 90 seconds while covering circular paths of between one-half and one mile. On the basis of those flights, Langley deservedly receives credit for having achieved the world’s first sustained flights of heavier-than-air flying machines, even though they were unmanned.

With those successes behind him, Langley was ready to embark on his most ambitious undertaking–building a man-carrying flying machine, which would become known as his “Great Aerodrome.” The project would be costly, so he set out to obtain government money. The Spanish-American War erupted in April 1898, so the War Department became interested in his proposed vehicle as an observation platform. The War Department awarded him $50,000 in late 1898 to cover expenses. Langley would use another $23,000 of Smithsonian discretionary funds, which he controlled, before the project was complete.

Because he had a winning approach in the small aerodromes, Langley simply scaled everything up, making necessary allowance for the presence of an onboard aviator. The Great Aerodrome would be catapulted from the top of a new and larger houseboat. It took Langley almost five hours to remove the Great Aerodrome from storage, raise each piece to the top of the shed and fully assemble the machine on the catapult. Summer thunderstorms frequently disrupted those time-consuming preparations.

The development of a suitable engine to power the dual pusher propellers proved to be a major frustration; 41Ž2 years passed before a suitable engine was developed by Charles Manly, an engineer on Langley’s team, in the Smithsonian shops. It delivered 52 hp at a weight of approximately 200 pounds. By contrast, the Wright brothers’ 180-pound (and thoroughly adequate) engine delivered only 12 hp. Manly’s engine was the highest performance gasoline engine of its day, and was one of the true achievements of the Great Aerodrome project.

Like the earlier small versions, the Great Aerodrome was again a tandem-wing, dual pusher propeller configuration. It measured 55 feet in overall length and 48 feet in wingspan. The frail, lightweight structure was braced by a complex system of support wires radiating from four guy posts. One engine drove both propellers through an array of shafts and gears. An aviator’s car was added to accommodate the pilot. Rudimentary controls consisted of an engine throttle, a vertical, wedge-shaped rudder for yaw control, and a large cruciform tail for pitch control. Like some other would-be aviators of the day, Langley thought that a human pilot could not react quickly enough to unpredictable upper air currents in order to completely control a flying machine. Hence, he installed no lateral (roll) control–inherent stability was to be assured by wing dihedral. Landing gear was conspicuously absent. The aviator–Manly volunteered for the honor–would just have to know how to swim! There were floats located about the airframe to prevent it from sinking. The Great Aerodrome, including pilot, weighed 850 pounds. By comparison, the 1903 Wright Flyer weighed 750 pounds including pilot. It was a biplane 40 feet in span, 21 feet in overall length, and incorporated a fully tested three-axis control system that, as the Wrights well understood, was the outstanding challenge to manned flight at that time.

In the fall of 1903, everything was ready. By now Langley was feeling intense pressure to show results. He was running out of money, there was no war to sustain government interest in the work, and the media wanted to know what the country was getting for the taxpayers’ money. During the first flight test on October 7, the Great Aerodrome shot off the catapult and immediately nosed down into the Potomac “like a handful of mortar.” The floating debris was gathered up and taken back to the Smithsonian shops. The damage was actually not serious. The aerodrome was repaired and taken out for another flight on December 8. There was no time to tow the houseboat downriver from Washington to Quantico, so the test took place off of what is now Washington National Airport in full view of the press and public. This time, immediately after launch, the Great Aerodrome nosed up, fell over onto its back and crashed into the now cold and icy river. Remarkably, Manly survived unharmed but well chilled. A generous ration of spirits and expletives brought about his swift recovery.

The media and Congress had a field day at the expense of the “professor… wandering in his dreams of flight…who was given to building…castles in the air.” One congressman was quoted as saying, “You tell Langley for me…that the only thing he ever made fly was government money.” The appropriateness of spending public funds on that kind of high-risk research was openly debated. And then, as if to deliberately aggravate an already tender wound, the Wright brothers conducted their first four successful flights at Kitty Hawk, N.C., only nine days later–on December 17.

As secretary of the Smithsonian, Langley was, in effect, the nation’s chief scientist. Consequently, all the open criticism and public ridicule had a devastating effect on his image and self-esteem. After he died, disheartened and disgraced, in February 1906, Langley was identified with the failure of his Great Aerodrome–his other substantial and lasting accomplishments being overlooked and largely forgotten.

What went wrong? Langley blamed the launch mechanism for the failures. A friend of Orville Wright, Griffith Brewer, dismissed that explanation as little more than an unsupportable excuse. While modern-day aerodynamicists differ somewhat on the details, they agree that the Aerodrome’s flimsy structure was unable to support the transient aerodynamic loads induced on it by the catapult-type launch. The Langley team did not have the scientific understanding or the engineering insight to achieve the dream of “navigating the air.” There was much about aerodynamics and flying that Langley never mastered.

The Great Aerodrome did not pass into oblivion after the 1903 disaster, however. It reappeared in 1914 to become the centerpiece in a long and drawn out public controversy between the Smithsonian and Orville Wright (Wilbur had died of typhoid in 1912) over who invented the first operational airplane. In 1914, the Smithsonian awarded Glenn Curtiss, one of the great innovators and promoters of early aviation who flew after and competed with the Wrights, a $2,000 contract to fly the Great Aerodrome to settle the still unanswered question of whether or not it would have been capable of sustained, piloted flight. The Great Aerodrome was shipped to the Curtiss aircraft factory at Hammondsport, N.Y., where it was extensively modified and rebuilt by his mechanics and actually flown on several short hops over Keuka Lake. The machine was then returned to the Smithsonian and restored to its 1903 condition.

On the basis of the flights of the altered machine, the Great Aerodrome was put on display at the Smithsonian with an exhibit label asserting that it “was the first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight.” The Smithsonian’s 1914 annual report stated that the Great Aerodrome of 1903, “with its original structure and power,” was “capable of flying with a pilot and several hundred pounds of useful load.” The Wright Flyer was shipped to England for display.

Orville Wright asked the Smithsonian to clarify its claims, initiating a public dispute that was to harm the institution’s credibility and tarnish its reputation for objective scholarship. The controversy would not be fully and finally settled to everyone’s satisfaction for 34 years. In 1942, the Smithsonian published a short paper, reviewed and approved by Orville Wright, that confessed the institution’s sins in the most diplomatic terms. That paper defused the controversy and paved the way for the eventual reconciliation between Orville Wright and the Smithsonian.

On December 17, 1948–45 years to the hour after the Wright brothers’ first flights–the restored 1903 Wright Flyer was returned to public display in an elaborate ceremony at the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. The personalities and events of that controversy, characterized by Griffith Brewer in the 1920s as “the greatest scandal in aviation history,” make a fascinating sidelight to aviation legend that readers will find described in biographies of Langley, Curtiss and the Wright brothers.

Besides the Great Aerodrome, more than 15 air and space craft are suspended from the Virginia Air and Space Center’s ceiling. Some of those include a Bell P-39Q Airacobra, a General Dynamics YF-16 Fighting Falcon and a Convair F-106B Delta Dart–a NASA Langley Research Center lightning-research aircraft that was struck by lightning more than 700 times during its research life. The center’s spacecraft on display include a Lunar Orbiter, in addition to the Mercury 14 spacecraft and Apollo 12 command module. The center also has an IMAX theater–the only one of its kind in Virginia, featuring a five-story projection screen and a 16,000-watt surround sound system.

Winter hours effective until Memorial Day are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Summer hours, which begin Memorial Day weekend and continue through Labor Day weekend, are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.

Admission to the center is $6 for adults and $4 for seniors, military and children ages 3 through 11. Several IMAX films are shown daily. Film tickets are $5.50 for adults and $4.50 for seniors, military and children; double feature tickets are $8 for adults and $7.50 for seniors, military and children. The Virginia Air and Space Center and Hampton Roads History Center are located off Interstate 64, exit 267. Follow Settlers Landing Road to downtown Hampton, and the center will be on the left. For more information call (804) 727-0900 or 1-800-296-0800. *