Samuel Pierpont Langley
Samuel Pierpont Langley was America’s leading contender to become the inventor of the first successful heavier-than-air flying machine. A noted astronomer with an interest in aeronautics, Langley became the third Secretary of the Smithson Institution in 1887 following the death of Spencer Baird.
Flight of the Aerodrome
Langley’s first successful, unpiloted flight of his aircraft occurred on May 6, 1896. He launched Aerodrome 5 with a catapult from a houseboat on the Potomac River near Quantico, Virginia. The craft went 3,300 feet at 30 miles per hour powered by a small gasoline engine. A second launch that same day traveled 2,300 feet. Langley made another unpiloted flight in November that traveled nearly 4,700 feet. With these successes, Langley believed that if he had the resources, he would soon be able to build a piloted flying machine.
Failure on the Potomac
In 1898, with the aid of his friend, Charles Walcott, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, Langley secured funding, including $50,000 from the U.S. War Department, to build a full-scale, piloted flying machine that he named, Aerodrome A. On October 3, 1903, the first flight attempt of Aerodrome A splashed into the Potomac River with Langley’s assistant, Charles Manly, at the controls. A second attempt on December 9 proved equally disastrous with the aircraft breaking apart soon after launch and crashing into the water. Though the pilot was unharmed, public ridicule in the press forever damaged Langley’s aviation dreams. He died three years later without making another flight.