The Langley Large Aerodrome "A" was designed in 1898 in response to a request by President McKinley. It is almost certain that Langley had not originally intended to build an Aerodrome capable of carrying an operator, but had planned to refine the larger model Aerodromes. These would have evolved from the quite successful Aerodromes No. 5 and No. 6. The first step in building an Aerodrome capable of carrying an operator was to construct a smaller version of what would be a larger craft. This was the Langley Quarter-Size Aerodrome, which confirmed the apparent soundness of the design for the Aerodrome "A."
It must be noted that the
"Langley's aeronautical experiments appeared to have concluded with the successful flights of Aerodromes No. 5 and 6, but privately he intended to raise funds to begin work on a full-scale, human-carrying aircraft. He believed his only real hope of securing the kind of funding necessary was from the federal government. The breakthrough came when Langley's friend and colleague, Charles D. Walcott, of the U.S. Geological Survey, offered to present the proposal to President McKinley. A panel was created to review Langley's work up to that time. The panel, which included Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, met at the Smithsonian in April 1898. After a week of deliberations, they approved a grant of $50,000 from the Board of Ordnance and Fortification for Langley to construct a full-sized aircraft. The outbreak of the Spanish-American War only five days earlier contributed to the panel's favorable and speedy decision."
A concerted effort by Pioneer Aviation Group to locate the clear bright link between Charles D. Walcott's presentation of a proposal to President McKinley and a request from Langley to Walcott that he do so has thus far been unsuccessful. Perhaps there is documented evidence that Langley pursued the matter through Walcott, but until such documentation is found we will hold to the point that Langley acted in response to a proposal from President McKinley.
One of the most remarkable and successful aspects of the Aerodrome "A" was its engine. Originally found to be inadequate for the task, Charles M. Manly redesigned the Balzer engine to produce, in December of 1901, a reliable 5-cylinder radial engine which generated 52 h.p. at 950 r.p.m., a wonder of its time.
Charles Manly was chosen to operate the Langley Large Aerodrome "A" and plans for the first flight, in October of 1903, were made. This attempt was a dismal failure, caused by an improper balancing of the Aerodrome "A"; it was nose-heavy and after leaving the launcher plunged into the Potomac River. Manly attempted to correct the problem by moving the tail, but the machine did not respond in time. As Manly stated to the press, "The balancing, upon which depends the success of a flight, was based upon the tests of the models and proved to be incorrect, but only an actual test of the full-sized machine could determine this."
After rebuilding the damaged Aerodrome "A" (a considerable amount of the damage was caused by a tugboat towing the wrecked flying machine through the water), another test was planned for December of 1903. On the 8th, the Aerodrome "A" was again sent down the launching apparatus track, with Charles Manly again at the controls.
Another, even more spectacular disaster resulted, as the Aerodrome "A" reared-up into a vertical position, its propellers spinning and holding the craft momentarily in its vertical position, before it fell, yet again, into the Potomac River. This failure was caused, it was believed, by the tail snagging on the launching apparatus and then breaking. The newspapers were unforgiving of the failure, dubbing it "Langley's Folly," ridiculing the effort and railing about the expenditure of U.S. Army funds on the project. Manly believed that additional funds could have been secured to continue the experiments save for the negative press reports and blasting editorials. As for Langley, he was deeply disheartened by the failure (coming as it did as the last of the funds had been spent) and was also deeply hurt by the negative press. Hence, he decided it would not serve to request additional funding. Thus ended Langley's 16 years of aerial experiments.
The Aerodrome "A," much rebuilt and modified by Glenn H. Curtiss, would fly... in 1914, into yet another cyclone of controversy, as an element in the bitterly fought patent suit between the Wright Company and Glenn H. Curtiss. That part of Aerodrome "A"'s story, however, is beyond the scope of this article.
Seen on its own terms, the lengthy series of Langley's experiments with flying machines is an amazing story of perseverance and failure, highlighted by some stunning successes, only to end in even greater failure. Hopefully the acidic atmosphere around the Aerodrome "A"'s later history (in which Samuel Langley played no role, for he died in 1906) and its role in the Wright-Curtiss patent war will some day be seen as distinctly separate from the honorable and quite wonderful series of aerial experiments of which it had been a part.
In 1897, when he had, or so he thought, finished his work with flying machines, Langley wrote of his model Aerodromes "And now, it may be asked, what has been done? This has been done: a 'flying machine,' so long a type for ridicule, has really flown; it has demonstrated its practicability in the only satisfactory way - by actually flying, and by doing this again and again, under circumstances which leave no doubt."
On the wind-swept sand dunes of North Carolina's Outer Banks, nine days after Aerodrome "A"'s last, public and profound failure, Wilbur Wright and Orville Wright would achieve the first dashes through the air which could properly be termed a powered, controlled, heavier-than-air flight with an operator aboard. Even if funds had become available for Langley to continue research with the Aerodrome "A" in 1904, the events at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina (little noted at the time in stark contrast to Langley's very public, embarrassing and well known failure), would have made the matter moot. Unless, of course, Charles Manly had managed in early 1904 to control the Aerodrome "A" in flight, perhaps turning left and right and then landing some great distance from the house boat. Then, perhaps, the matter of The First Flight would have still remained a topic of heated debate. But that was not to be.