Just to get it ‘out of the way’, Tesla had a plan for a steam powered airplane and designed the Tesla Turbine to power it. To the best of my knowledge, no operational plane was ever made, but turbines were. There were some issues at high power settings (low efficiency, though efficiency was good at lower powers and a tendency for the rotors to warp and fail at high hot settings) but a workable craft might have still been possible.
But I’m talking about real flying airplanes.
There is one other interesting non-flying detour into steam and airplanes. An integrated rotary boiler and turbine.
This was intended to go into an airplane. The Huettner.
A site with a rather extreme list of interesting old technology and a rather great sense of humor…
The claim is that the target airplane was to have a 43,000 ft ceiling, 230 MPH, engine power 2500 H.P.
By integrating all the parts a high power to weight ration could be achieved. I have to wonder, though, about balance and sealing problems in such an integrated design. The boiler efficiency might be a bit suboptimal too. Still, an interesting idea.
The Wiki on Steam Airplanes
The wiki has a pretty good list, but mostly it has non-flying things in it:
1842: The Aerial Steam Carriage of William Samuel Henson and John Stringfellow was patented, but was never successful, although a steam-powered model was flown in 1848.
1852: Henri Giffard flies a 3 horsepower (2 kW) steam-powered dirigible over Paris; it was the first powered aircraft.
1874: Félix du Temple flies a steam powered aluminium Monoplane off a downhill run. While it did not achieve level flight, it was the first manned heavier-than-air powered flight.
1894: Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim (inventor of the Maxim Gun) built and tested a large steam powered aircraft. The machine generated sufficient lift and thrust to break free of the test track and fly but was never operated as a piloted aircraft.
1899: Gustave Whitehead built and flew a steam powered airplane in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Stoker/passenger Louis Darvarich was injured when the plane crashed into an upper story of an apartment building. He later flew steam aircraft in Hartford, Connecticut, and was visited by one of the Wright brothers well before 1903. However, this flight has never been verified satisfactorily; there are no photographs, news stories, or other media from 1899 to confirm it. Likewise, the supposed visit of the Wright brothers to Whitehead is apocryphal; other than affidavits taken over thirty years after the fact, there is no evidence the visit ever happened. Mainstream aviation historians remain unconvinced of the Whitehead claims.
1902: Louis Gagnon flew a steam helicopter in Rossland, British Columbia, called the “Flying Steam Shovel”. Control problems caused a crash.
1920 The Bristol Tramp would have been a steam powered aeroplane but the turbine was over powered and the construction of a reliable boiler and condenser circuit was problematic.
1933: George D. Besler and William J. Besler’s prototype steam biplane, based on a Travel Air 2000, flew several times at Oakland airport. It was powered by a two-cylinder, 150 hp (110 kW) reciprocating engine designed by the Doble Steam Motors Company and Besler weighing about 500 lbs. and was capable of STOL operation due to the ease of reversing the thrust.
1944: A steam-powered version of the Messerschmitt Me 264a was hypothesized but never constructed. This was meant to be powered by a steam turbine developing over 6,000 horsepower (4,500 kW) while driving a 5.3 meter (17′ 6″) diameter propeller. The fuel would have been a mixture of powdered coal and petroleum. It seems that the steam turbines would have had an SFC of 190 gr/hp/hr. The main considered advantages to this powerplant were consistent power at all altitudes and low maintenance.
1960s: Conceptual drawings were made for Don Johnson of Thermodynamic Systems Inc. Newport Beach, CA of an engine. It was to be in installed in a Hughes 300 helicopter. The steam engine was a compact cylindrical double-acting uniflow [similar in layout to the Dyna-Cam Aero engine], but never prototyped by Controlled Steam Dynamics, Inc.
Other than the semi-apocryphal Whitehead flight, these are all either non-aeroplanes or never flew… except for that Doble powered Besler…
what interests me most is that; an actual flying steam plane…
What’s a Doble?
They didn’t make a lot of cars, but the ones they did make were very good. Jay Leno has one.
So some folks looked at this very well made, fairly light (for the time) and very reliable steam engine with a small flash tube boiler of a sort and thought it would work in an airplane. And built one. And it flew… And we have movies, er “Film at 11”
I especially like the bit after they land when, headed back to the camera, they use the reverse engine feature to suddenly slow down without a pitch forward moment from low braking at the wheels.
So if we could make one that worked with an old car engine, I’m sure we could do better today. I’ve always wanted a relatively quite airplane…
A well thought out engine, it has a fairly compact design.
From the Doble Wiki:
The Model E
By 1923, the model E had been developed; this could be said to be the “classic” Doble , of which the most examples have survived. The initial monotube boiler design was perfected into the “American” type. This produced steam at a pressure of 750 psi (52 bar) and a temperature of 750 °F (400 °C). The tubing was formed from seamless cold drawn steel 575 ft 9 in (175 m) in total length, measuring 22 inches (560 mm) in diameter by 33 inches (840 mm) in height when coiled and assembled. The boiler was cold water tested to a pressure of 7,000 psi (480 bar). Two 2-cylinder compound cylinder blocks were in effect placed back-to-back as the basis for a 4-cylinder Woolf compound unit with high pressure cylinders placed on the outside. A piston valve incorporating transfer ports was fitted between each high-pressure and low-pressure cylinder in an arrangement similar to Vauclain’s balanced compound system used on a number of railway locomotives around 1900. Stephenson’s valve gear replaced the previous Joy motion. This engine was used on all vehicles developed thereafter. Again, the car neither possessed nor needed a clutch or transmission, and due to the engine being integrated directly into the rear axle, it did not need a drive shaft either. Like all steam vehicles it could burn a variety of liquid fuels with a minimum of modification and was a noticeably clean running vehicle, its fuel being burned at high temperatures and low pressures, which produced very low pollution.
The 1924 model Doble Series E steam car could run for 1,500 miles (2,400 km) before its 24-gallon water tank needed to be refilled; even in freezing weather, it could be started from cold and move off within 30 seconds, and once fully warmed could be relied upon to reach speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour (140 km/h). In recent years Doble cars have been run at speeds approaching 120 mph (190 km/h), this without the benefits of streamlining, and a lighter version of the Series E accelerated from 0 – 75 mph (121 km/h) in 10 seconds. Its fuel consumption, burning a variety of fuels (often kerosene), was competitive with automobiles of the day, and its ability to run in eerie silence apart from wind noise gave it a distinct edge. At 70 mph (110 km/h), there was little noticeable vibration, with the engine turning at around 900 rpm.
Contemporary Doble advertisements mentioned the lightness of the engine, which would lead customers to compare it favorably with heavier gasoline engines, but “engine” in a steam car usually refers solely to the expander unit, and does not take into account the complete power plant including boiler and ancillary equipment; on the other hand clutch and gearbox were not needed.
All in all, a nice little package.
A nice gallery of Dobles in Great Britain:
A Pop Sci article on Jay Leno’s Doble:
It has this interesting note at the bottom:
The smoothness and force of the acceleration, however, never fail to amaze me—it’s like the Hand of God pushing you along. I was running at 85 mph the other day, and there was more to go. It’s dead silent on the road, just wooooooooshhhhhh!!! Back in the day, Hughes was clocked at 132.5 mph on a Texas highway, faster than anything with an internal combustion engine. It proves what I’ve always believed: The last days of an old technology are almost always better than the first days of a new technology.
Wonder where they got the “H Rated” tires back then ;-)
Somewhere (a link I’ve lost) was a story of someone going well over 100,000 miles with one of these and it’s still going strong.
This site has a bit more history and a flying model airplane using steam!
I must be crazy… I now want to make a steam powered ‘ultralight’… I’d love to have an ultralight, but some hearing damage has left me very sensitive to noise, especially the 2 stoke buzz so many make. The idea of a near silent ultralight is very attractive. I know, probably not quite possible… given the weight limit… but… A carbon fiber case, modern light weight materials for all the ancillary bits too. Lighten the boiler by using a large burner to tube ratio with atomization of the water as it sprays inside the boiler on the hot spots to flash, and have the weight of water reduced with a very efficient condenser and 100% recycle. I think it just might be possible…
After all, they were flying on steam in the 1930s…