Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Heavier than Air Steam Powered Flight?

During a somewhat recent discussion inworld on the subject of aircraft
history and design the possibility of steam powered (and thus Steampunk)
aeroplanes was raised. The conversation concluded with the commonly
held belief that while steam power was viable for lighter than air craft
the power to weight ratio and complexity of operation of steam power
plants precluded their use in powering fixed wing aircraft.

This is a commonly held view, yet as is often the case with commonly
held views it is wrong. In 1933 two brothers named Besler built and flew
a conventional production model Travel Air 2000 biplane fitted out with
a 150 HP steam aeroengine. The Gentlemen (and possibly ladies) of the
press were invited and they duly recorded the following film of the event.

Contemporary reports made much of the silence of the engines operation
with many reporting they could clearly hear and understand the pilot
shouting to them as he flew overhead.

The engine is a modification of the designs manufactured by the Doble
Brothers for their automobiles. For those unfamiliar with this
particular Marque (very few people have heard of the Doble) the Doble
Brothers, led by their eldest brother Abner Doble formed several
companies to produce automobiles using their condensing steam engines, a
first for steam cars. Their cars were also noted for their efficiency
(both fuel and feed water), their lack of visible exhaust, their
reliabilty and build quality (the engines were designed and built to run
a million miles before needing rebuilding), and ease of use due to the high
level of automation in the power system.

The key to the Doble power plant was a singularly effective pressure fed
steam generator that was electrically ignited and could generate enough
steam to start off in around 30 seconds (Albeit at less than full
speed). The brother's goal was to produce a steam system as easy to use
and maintain as an internal combustion engine. They also willingly took
on outside consulting projects to promote the superiority of steam
power. Thus their role in development of the Besler engine.

Alas to the best I have been able to determine this was the only such
aeroplane built and flown. The War Department of the United States did
take an interest in the concept of Steam Planes during WW II and a 3
cylinder rotary engine was produced, but there are no records of it ever
having been mounted in a plane and test flown. Only one survives to this
day and is on display in Atlanta Georgia. I could not find any pictures
of that engine but apparently it is popular among steam enthusiasts who
build operating scale models. Below is a clip of one such model being
demonstrated. I assume with a properly designed steam generator this
unit could be used to power a RC model plane but I have found no
aethereal record of such being done.

The Nazi war machine also took an interest in the potential of steam
planes, particularly for long range heavy bombers. But all the articles I
have read indicate that none of their research in this area got past the
conceptual stages.

If anyone knows of any further information about this subject please let
me know. I'll gladly share it in this forum.

Your humble servant, A. Tinlegs, Gnome.

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