The Besler Steam Plane; Not As Insane As You Might Think

May 14, 2024

The steam engine, foundation of the industrial age. It isn’t wrong to say that steam engines basically created the modern world of today, or at least laid the tracks for it. Steam engines provided the power source for so much of the industrial age that even with the perfection of the internal combustion engine, steam refused to go away and found itself used for a surprisingly long time. Indeed, because nuclear powerplants are basically steam turbines with added glow-in-the-dark elements, steam is still very much a feature in propulsive technology.

But to return to the original, more conventional steam engine, their long usage and the corresponding familiarity with steam power meant that it was often used in vehicles where it was ill-advised.

Ever heard of the K-class submarines? If not, check out the excellent video by Drachinifel on them, but the long and the short of it is that even submarines at various times had attempts to sandwich steam engines into them, with all the horrors that entailed. Steam engines were powerful, yes, but they tended to be bulky and heavy, needing boilers and massive quantities of water to provide the steam that gave them their oomph.

So, fitting them into submarines wasn’t a very good idea, despite some of the advantages they could offer.

But in an aeroplane!? You’d have to be an utter lunatic to try to fit a steam engine into an aircraft, right?

Meet the Besler Steam Plane.

In fact, there were a number of attempts to use steam power for aircraft propulsion over the years, going all the way back to 1842! Indeed, in 1874 the Du Temple monoplane, powered by a steam engine, made a short hop with a pilot, though this isn’t really considered the first true flight because the aircraft got a run up down a slope to get airborne and basically carried on going downhill.

So as far as I am aware the Besler is the first, and possibly only, steam-powered aircraft that was capable of proper independent flight, though to be fair the builders had some significant advantages over their predecessors, primarily in that aircraft were an everyday item by the time they were working on the issue.

In 1932 George and William Besler, two brothers from Iowa, managed to obtain a number of steam engines and patents from the recently defunct Doble Steam Car Company. This concern had been working on building small, high-powered and comparatively light weight steam engines for about thirty years mainly for fitting in, well, cars, and so the Besler boys thought they could use some of this expertise and technology and apply it to an aircraft.

They took a standard Travel Air 2000, a common and popular two-seat biplane design of the time, removed its piston engine and replaced it with a Doble-built steam one. This was a two-cylinder V-type that was oil-fired and used a flash boiler – where the water was boiled off in a proverbial flash – to create high pressure steam to power the aircraft, generating a respectable 150hp.

And the engine itself wasn’t too heavy at all, coming in at around 180lb (c.82kg). But all the ancillary stuff that goes along with a steam engine – boiler, pumps, condensers and let’s not forget, the water – meant that all in weight for the powerplant was closer to 500lbs (227kgs). This made it a good 100lbs heavier than the Curtiss OX-5 V-8 it replaced, and this meant that the aircraft was reportedly overweight.

Additionally, it took five minutes for the aircraft to get up to pressure before it could fly.

But for all that, the Besler Steam had some definite advantages.

First taking to the skies on the 12th of April 1933, the aircraft was reported to be amazingly quiet. The pilot and his passenger were said to be quite capable of carrying out a conversation while airborne, while from an altitude of 200 feet (c.60m) they were able to conduct a shouted conversation with the watchers on the ground.

Additionally, the engine was capable of going into instant reverse with a pull of switch. This isn’t using a propellor reverser as is used conventionally; the entire engine could go straight into reverse.

The Besler brothers, flying their brainchild, demonstrated this several times, causing the aircraft to stop dead in a distance of one hundred feet. This was particularly appreciated by observers who recognized that the common method of stopping aircraft at the time, applying wheel brakes, could cause the aircraft to tip over onto its nose. But by reversing the engine thrust the Besler would stop perfectly solidly and with no issues whatsoever.

The Besler’s carried a number of test and demonstration flights with their remarkable aircraft, and certainly much interest was sparked when news of the program hit the headlines. Aeronautic engineers wondered if perhaps steam offered the prospect of pushing aircraft up to higher altitudes than then-possible, something the newfangled aero superchargers that were being developed were promising to do for internal combustion engines, but which a steam engine might do naturally.

However, despite the hype, the Besler and steam-powered aircraft generally fell by the wayside. Now I may be wrong with this, as steam engines really aren’t my thing, but as I understand it one key problem was that the Besler engine would condense out the water it used for steam, but doesn’t seem to have able to reuse it, limiting flight time to around fifteen minutes.

The Besler brothers made noise about engineering a solution, but that never seems to have come to pass, and so their rather remarkable aircraft faded into history.

However, though the plane has gone a copy of the engine still survives at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

Sources/Related:

https://www.wingsofhistory.org/what-about-steam/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steam-powered_aircraft

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doble_steam_car#Besler_Brothers

https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/besler-steam-engine-reproduction/nasm_A19650253000

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