George & William BESLER

Steam-Powered Airplane

15-minute silent film of Besler and his steam-driven vehicles (plane, car, train) at:

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 Air biplane.

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 automobile.

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.


Coil Spacer

Controlled Balance Flow of Parallel Boiler Circuits  [ PDF ]

Boiler Control System [ PDF ]

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