A Steam-Powered Airplane, Anyone?

As we continue to ponder what we'll fill our gas tanks with in the future – Diesel? Biofuel? Maybe even plastic, as one intrepid Cessna 182 pilot hopes to do soon – it's pretty interesting to look back through aviation history and realize that even early pioneers sought out alternatives to the gasoline internal combustion engine.

In doing research for my story on the Canadian National Research Council's upcoming Falcon 20 biofuel test flights, I stumbled upon an old photo of the Besler Steam Plane billowing a white cloud of hot water vapor as its engine idled on the ramp.

I love steam engines. I used to build them as a kid out of empty Coke cans. Last week I took a tour of the only remaining steam-powered cider press in the United States – B.F. Clyde’s Cider Mill in Old Mystic, Connecticut. The pop and chug of a steam engine can always bring a smile to my face.

I did some digging and was surprised to learn that the first aviation steam engine was patented way back in 1842 for a proposed monoplane called the Aerial Steam Carriage. It never flew. In 1852, a 3-horsepower steam engine propelled a dirigible over Paris, making it the first powered aircraft. Then in 1874, the first manned heavier-than-air powered flight took place in a steam-powered monoplane built by Felix du Temple – 29 years before the Wright Brothers’ famous feat. The only trouble was, du Temple’s aluminum monoplane apparently took off downhill and kept right on descending. Oh well.

But the Besler Brothers (George and William) apparently built the only steam-powered airplane in history to successfully take wing. With an engine produced by the Doble Steam Motors Co. in Detroit, it put out 150 hp and weighed about 500 pounds. Most interesting, the Bessler's biplane was capable of extremely short landings because the steam engine was easily reversible.

A newspaper reporter’s account of one early test flight at the Oakland, California, airport in the spring of 1933 recalled that the airplane passed overhead at 100 mph “trailing a thin ribbon of white vapor” before banking for a landing and, with the propeller suddenly spinning backward, rolling to a stop in less than 100 feet.

I looked for photos of the Bessler Steam Plane in flight and found something even better on YouTube: video of the first demonstration flight on April 12, 1933.

Check it out:


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