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Flying Machines: A History of Early Aviation

The Return of Langley’s Aerodrome

The Doomed Flight of Aerodrome A

In 1914, while the Wrights’ patent lawsuits were working their way through the courts, Smithsonian Secretary Charles Walcott came up with a plan to rebuild Samuel Langley’s Great Aerodrome. Langley had claimed that it was the launch mechanism that failed rather than the airplane itself. Walcott wanted to test that theory. If correct, it would establish Langley’s precedence over the Wrights and possibly help break their wing warping patent.

A Washington Times reporter snapped the only photograph of Samuel Langley’s Aerodrome A in flight on December 8, 1903. Langley’s men on the houseboat reported that the airplane had somehow been damaged by the catapult during launch. Manly agreed with this assessment, pointing to the structural damage depicted in the photograph to support that conclusion. Manly, Charles. “Langley Memoir on Mechanical Flight: Part II, 1897 to 1903.” Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, vol. 27, no. 3, Smithsonian Institution, 1911. View Source.

The Rebuilt Aerodrome Takes Flight

Walcott hired Glenn Curtiss to rebuild the aircraft. Rather than using Langley’s houseboat, Curtiss fitted the airplane with pontoons for a water takeoff. On September 17, 1914, the Great Aerodrome made a successful flight over Lake Keuka in New York. Secretary Walcott now felt that he had evidence to resurrect Langley’s rightful place in aviation history.

Photo of Aerodrome taking flight above Lake Keuka near Hammondsport, New York

Langley’s Aerodrome takes flight above Lake Keuka near Hammondsport, New York, on September 17, 1914. Zahm, A. F. “The First Man-Carrying Aeroplane Capable of Sustained Free Flight—Langley’s Success as a Pioneer in Aviation.” Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1914. Government Printing Office, 1915. View Source.

Smithsonian Exhibit

After the 1914 flight, curators at the Smithsonian Institution displayed the Great Aerodrome with a label (left) that stated it was the first airplane “capable” of flight. The wording angered Orville Wright (Wilbur had died in 1912). He knew that Curtiss significantly modified the machine beyond fitting it with pontoons. In 1928, Orville sent the original 1903 Wight Flyer to the Science Museum in London, where it remained for 20 years. It returned to the U.S. only after the Smithsonian publicly acknowledged the extent of modifications done to the Great Aerodrome in 1914. The 1903 Wright Flyer finally went on display at the Smithsonian on December 17, 1948, the 45th anniversary of the first flight.

Display text for Langley’s Great Aerodrome on display at the Smithsonian Institution

Display text for Langley’s Great Aerodrome on display at the Smithsonian Institution. Orville did not live to see the Wright Flyer on display at the Smithsonian. He died from a heart attack at the age of 76 on January 30, 1948. Walcott, Charles. “Samuel Pierpont Langley and Modern Aviation.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. LXV, no. 2, 1926. View Source.