Langley’s Feat—and Folly

The Smithsonian Secretary assembled a devoted team, a remarkable engine and a plane that wouldn’t fly

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On October 7, Manly climbed aboard, started the engine and ran it up to full speed. It had taken him and Balzer a total of five years for this impressive piece of machinery, with its five cylinders radiating star-like from its driveshaft, to be wrenched up to this zenith of its performance. Now, as its bellow reached full voice, he signaled for the plane's release.

"This was done," reads Manly's report, "and the car started down the track under the combined impetus of the launching springs and the propellers. . . ." And then: "I experienced a slight jerk and discovered immediately that the machine was plunging forward and downward. . . ."

Manly had no time to shut down the engine before hitting the water. He got dunked, but swam away unhurt. Much of the airplane's structure was crushed when it hit the water. So was Langley. The press howled with laughter. The much-touted flying machine had slipped into the water "like a handful of mortar."

The tragedy dragged on as Langley got his dream machine repaired and ready for another try. On December 8, 1903, Manly crawled back into the cockpit, revved up the engine, signaled . . . and again plunged into the Potomac. The wings had simply snapped in the rush of air. This time Manly nearly drowned in the icy river, and when he got back aboard the houseboat he cut loose with a blast of blue language in front of all the dignitaries who had been invited to witness the triumph. They were surprised. They shouldn't have been.

Just over one week later, the Wrights flew at Kitty Hawk and won the race for the air. Langley's mistake was in scaling up his small models without accounting for the fact that on the full-sized plane, drag would be increased exponentially. The Wrights started with full-sized gliders and had flown them for years. They knew how to fly. Manly had none of this experience — just guts.

But Langley's wreck had a wonderful engine — created for a plane that wouldn't fly. Had the craft flown, Manly's creation would have been the first airplane engine in the world; certainly, it was built earlier and far better than the 12 hp job that got the Wrights airborne. Balzer's original would have been the first aerial rotary, a type of engine that drove a swarm of fighter planes in World War I. They had all the same advantages of Balzer's, and the same problems — hard to control because of torque, hard to keep lubricated because of centrifugal force. Castor oil was the lubrication of choice for them, and many a pilot of an early German Fokker, British Sopwith or French Nieuport suffered digestive unrest by breathing the fumes flung back by a rotary.

The improvements made by Manly turned the engine into the world's first radial engine designed for flight, the same basic type of engine that took Lindbergh to Paris and drove many classic bombers and fighters in World War II.

Langley, shattered by defeat, died in 1906. Manly's health was marred by constant exposure to the intense heat of metalwork. He ran an engineering firm in New York, and died in 1927, only 51 years old. Balzer lived until 1940. Few remember his name.

But the heartbreaking efforts of this disparate team live on in their splendid little gray engine. Notice the sheen on those big cylinders. Could that be the shine of sweat? Or maybe the splash of tears?

Both seem likely.


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