1896: An Aircraft Resembling an “Enormous Bird” Makes Aviation History above the Potomac River

May 6, 1896

An aviation milestone took place in the vicinity of Quantico, Virginia, when Aerodrome No. 5 made the first successful flights of an unpiloted, tandem-winged, engine-powered, heavier-than-air model of substantial size. (“Aerodrome” is derived from a Greek phrase that roughly means “air runner.”)

Samuel Langley, who invented Aerodrome No. 5, launched it twice using a catapult on top of a houseboat on the Potomac River. During the first try, Aerodrome No. 5 made a circular flight of 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) altogether; the aircraft’s second circular flight covered a total of 2,300 feet (700 meters). Both times, the 25-pound (11-kilogram) model — moving along at a speed of approximately 25 miles (40.2 kilometers) per hour – landed slowly and gently onto the surface of the water. 

Alexander Graham Bell was among the people who witnessed both of those flights. Bell, who is best known today as the person widely credited with inventing the first practical telephone, had a strong interest in aeronautics. (He was the one who took the above photo of Aerodrome No. 5 in flight on that May afternoon.) Bell’s account of those pioneering flights of Aerodrome No. 5 was published later that month in the Washington, D.C.-based Evening Star.

“[Aerodrome No.5] resembled an enormous bird, soaring in the air with extreme regularity in large curves, sweeping steadily upward in a spiral path, the spirals with a diameter of perhaps 100 yards [91.4 meters], until it reached a height of about 100 fee [30.5 meters] in the air,” wrote Bell. He also noted, “No one could have witnessed these experiments without being convinced that the practicability of mechanical flight had been demonstrated.”

Langley, who served as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 1887 to 1908, had begun his aviation work by experimenting with gliders activated by rubber bands before developing larger models known as aerodromes that were driven by miniature steam engines. His two launches on the Potomac River on May 6, 1896, marked his first real success with aerodromes and helped set the stage for human flight in heavier-than-air machines just a few years later.

For more information on Samuel Langley, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Langley

Additional images of Aerodrome No. 5 are available at http://www.flyingmachines.org/no5.html

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