George & William BESLER
15-minute silent film of Besler and his
steam-driven vehicles (plane, car, train)
Popular Science Monthly (July 1933) Vol 123, No. 1
World’s First Steam-Driven Airplane
H J Fitzgerald
Successful Flights with Long-Sought Craft Crown Many
Similar Attempts by Early Aviation Engineers
Over the Oakland, CA Airport, a few days ago, a silent planet
slanted across the sky trailing a thin ribbon of white vapor.
Spectators heard the pilot shout a greeting from the air. They
saw him flash past, skimming the ground at 100 miles an hour.
They watched him bank into a turn, slide to a landing, and, with
the propeller spinning backward, roll to a stop in less than 100
feet. They had seen, for the first time in history, a man fly on
wings powered by steam!
Two brothers, George and William Besler, the former a geologist
31 years old, and the latter a mechanical engineer, two years
younger, have achieved the dream of Maxim, Langley, and other
pioneers of flight. Through their work, the steam-driven
airplane, long talked about, long planned, has become a reality.
This spectacular development in the field of aeronautics is the
result of three years of secret experiment. The inventors began
their work in 1930, in a machine shop at Emeryville CA. A few
weeks ago, they brought the product of their researches, a
180-pound engine developing 150 horsepower, to the Oakland
Airport and installed it at the nose of a conventional Travel
This blue machine, with William Besler at the controls, sped
down the runway and climbed into the air without a sound except
the low whine of the propeller and the hum of wind through the
wires. Swinging back over the field at 200 feet, the pilot
shouted ‘Hello!’ and heard the answering calls from spectators
below. Conversation in the craft, the two inventors told me when
I interviewed them a few hours after their historic
demonstrations, was as easy as conversation in an open
Three times, the blue plane blazed a steam trail into the air,
taking off, landing, circling about, remaining aloft for 5
minutes at a time. The constant, wearing vibration of the gas
engine was gone; the smooth push and pull of steam power had
supplanted it. Each time, as the machine swooped down and the
wheels touched, Besler pulled back a small lever at the side of
the cockpit and the steam engine at the nose of the ship
instantly raced in reverse, whirling the propeller backward to
act as a powerful brake and reduce the landing run to a minimum.
This method of slowing down, possible only with steam power
plants, applies the braking effect above the center of gravity
and thus prevents nosing over in a quick stop. When wheel
brakes are jammed on suddenly, a plane nose over or
somersaults in a ground crash. Coming in at 50 miles an hour,
the Beslers told me, the new steam plane can sit down and come
to a stop in a field hardly 100 feet square.
The engine is a 2-cylinder, compound, double-acting, V-type
power plant. Its high-pressure cylinder has a 3-inch bore and
a 3-inch stroke; its low-pressure cylinder has 5 and a quarter
inch bore and a 3-inch stroke.
Just behind the engine, the inventors showed me the
barrel-shaped metal boiler which, with its super-efficient
burner, explains why they have succeeded where others have
failed in attempting to drive planes with a steam engine.
Using vaporized fuel oil, the patented burner releases as
much as 3 million BTU per cubic foot of firebox space. This,
they told me, is far in excess of anything hitherto attained.
An electric blower drives this tremendous heat down among the
flat spirals of a single 500-foot pipe coiled within the
boiler. Three-eights of an inch thick, inside measurement, at
the bottom, the pipe gradually increases in size until it has
an inside diameter of five-eights of an inch at the top. The
water supply to the coiled pipe is thermostatically controlled
to keep the temperature constant regardless of pressure.
Under the fuselage nose is the condenser which looks like an
ordinary radiator for a water-cooled motor and which is said
to recover more than 90 percent of the water from the used
steam. By using a steam-fed water pump, the inventors employ
the exhaust vapor to preheat the feed water entering the
boiler and thus decrease the time required to build up
pressure within the coils.
The operation of the power plant, once it is started, is
practically automatic. At the start of a flight, William Besler
climbs into the cockpit and flips over a small switch. Instantly
the electric blower goes into action, driving air mixed with
oil spray through the burner. Here, an electric spark ignites
the mixture and send a blowtorch of flame roaring downward
around the coils of pipe. A few minutes later, steam pressure
is high enough for the take-off. All the pilot has to do,
from then on, is to operate the throttle and reverse lever.
At 800 degrees F, the steam pressure built up within the
coils reaches 1500 lbs. With a 1200 lb pressure, the engine
will deliver 150 horsepower, whirling the propeller at 1625
rpm. Tests have shown that 10 gallons of water is sufficient
for a flight of 400 miles. By increasing the size and
efficiency of the condenser, the experimenters told me, they
believe they can make this amount of water last indefinitely.
As news of their sensational flights flashed to all parts of
the country, eager interest was aroused among aeronautical
authorities. The prospect of steam planes on the skyways opens
up fascinating possibilities.
Burning fuel oil so non-explosive that it merely smolders if
struck by the flame of a blowtorch, the new power plant
eliminates the menace of fire. In addition, the Beslers told me,
enough fuel oil for a 100-mile trip can be bought for 40 cents.
Because, above 1000 feet, steam-driven planes would be as
silent as soaring birds, they would have particular value in
military work. Noiseless warplanes have long been sought. But
muffling gasoline engines reduces their power to such an extent
that the plan is impractical. The new power plant, silent by
nature, would permit long-distance raids above the clouds by
ghost ships giving off no telltale drone of motors to warn the
enemy or to aid in directing anti-aircraft fire.
Most spectacular of all are the possibilities of steam on the
airways of the stratosphere. In the thin atmosphere of this
region, 10 miles or more above the surface of the earth, experts
agree, the high-speed transport ships of the future will fly.
Here there are no clouds, no storms, and the steady trade winds
of the upper blue will increase the speed of long distance
passenger, mail, and freight machines…
Scientific American ( September 1933 )
A Steam Driven Airplane Engine
By A. K.
Two brothers, William J and George Besler recently installed a
reciprocating steam engine in a conventional Travelair biplane,
and a number of successful flights have been made at the
Oakland, CA airport. The power plant is illustrated in these
columns by photographs and a diagram. As the engine was really
an old automobile engine, the airplane came out 300 lbs
overweight, but it is expected that savings in weight will be
readily made later.
The Besler brothers’ steam engine is a two-cylinder
double-acting, compound 90-degree V engine, with a cut off at
about 50 percent of the stroke. The high pressure cylinder has
a bore of 4-1/4 inches and a stroke of 3 inches. The low
pressure cylinder has the same stroke, but a 5 inch bore. The
ordinary working pressure is 950 psi, and the temperature of
the steam is 750 degrees F. The engine not only drives the
propeller but also drives a blower through an over-running
clutch. The blower (an electric motor used when starting)
supplies air to a Venturi in which the fuel lines terminate.
The Venturi leads the mixture to a fire box, where an ignition
plug sets the mixture aflame. Once ignition has been started,
the process of combustion is continuous.
The steam generator is of a modified flash type. The tubing
is continuous in length, about 500 ft in total length; the
coils are covered with metallic wool insulation and sheet
aluminum. A pop valve is set to give relief at 1500 psi. A
thermostatic normalizer device injects water into the
superheater whenever the temperature goes over 750 degrees F.
From the boiler the steam passes through a throttle to the
engine proper, and then to two condensers --- one mounted at
the top of the fuselage and one below. From the two radiators
or condensers, the steam passes into the water tank, which is
provided with a steam dome. From the water
tank, a pump passes the water through a primary heater and
then to a secondary heater. By preheating the water, some of
the energy of the exhaust steam is put back into the system,
ad thus the overall efficiency is improved. After passing
through the heaters the water again goes back to the boiler,
and the process is repeated over and over again.
In the tests the rapidity with which the boiler got up steam
was remarkable. In 5 minutes the plane was ready to take the
air. In the air, the absence of noise was remarkable. On
landing a very interesting possibility of the steam engine was
in evidence. As soon as the pilot landed he reversed the
engine (reversing the engine is a simple matter on a
reciprocating steam engine). With the propeller driven in the
opposite direction, a powerful braking effect was obtained.
Perfect control and smoothness of operation was noted
throughout the test flights.
A great deal of the technical work on the Besler steam engine
was done at the Boeing School of Aeronautics, and we are
indebted to Mr Welwood Beall of this school for a first-hand
account of the design.
Controlled Balance Flow of Parallel Boiler Circuits
[ PDF ]
Boiler Control System [ PDF ]