Steam Aeroplanes

Updated: 11 Dec 2013

More Maxim info
"On the basis of the weight of the power plant alone steam power plants for aircraft are precluded. On the basis of economy alone, they are again precluded. On the basis of the resistance of the cooling surface required alone, they are precluded. On the basis of the sum of these three considerations they are absolutely impossible."

From the report on steam propulsion for aircraft published by the American National Advisory Comittee on Aeronautics, June 1926.

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There is now a page on steam aeroplanes in Wikipedia.

The very first successful aeroplanes were powered by internal-combustion engines. They were naturally inefficient and heavy by today's standards, but there was still no doubt at the time that they were a far more practical power-plant for aviation than the most sophisticated steam engine available.

However, there were a few later attempts to demonstrate that steam had something to offer the aeroplane. 1933 in particular seems to have been a propitious time. Now read on...


There were many earlier attempts to build steam powered aeroplanes; here are a few notes on some of them. Bear in mind that the Wright brothers were the first to really solve the problem of making an aeroplane controllable in three dimensions, and if any of the early attempts at manned flight outlined below had actually taken off, their pilots would probably have lived to regret it. Though not for long.

John Stringfellow (1799 - 1883) of Sheffield, England was an important pioneer of flight, working with William Henson. He achieved the first powered flight of a model aircraftin a disused lace factory in Chard in 1848. The model had a 10 foot (3m) wingspan, and was powered by a steam engine. The ultimate goal was an Aerial Steam Carriage capable of carrying passengers up to 1000 miles.

Left: The engine and boiler of Stringfellow's 1848 model

The engine cylinder has a bore of 3/4-inch and a stroke of 2 inches. A bevel gear on the crankshaft gave the propellors three times the rotational speed of the engine.

The boiler consisted of a set of cones acting as water-tubes, connected to a cylindrical steam reservoir above.

The weight of the whole model, including water and fuel, was less than 9 pounds.

From Henson and Stringfellow: Their Work in Aeronautics" by M Davy, Science Museum 1931

Alexandr Fyodorovich Mozhaisky, was a Russian naval officer, aviation pioneer, researcher and inventor. He was born in 1825 in Finland. He built a steam-powered plane in 1882, but it is generally agreed it did not achieve sustained flight. A correspondent sent me this: "The Moshaisky steam plane engine is in the aviation museum in Monino near Moscow and as far as I remember one or two other aviation steam engines."

Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim (yes, he of the Maxim Gun) built and tested a large steam powered flying machine. On one run this machine generated sufficient lift and thrust to break free of the restraining rails of the test track, at which point the pilot wisely cut the power, as the machine would almost certainly have been uncontrollable. This has never been considered as a piloted aircraft in sustained and controlled flight, but it was undoubtedly a very brave effort.

Left: One of the two steam engines of Maxim's flying machine

The flying machine was powered by a pair of two-cylinder compound engines producing 180 HP (134 kW) each, driving two propellors 17.8 feet (5.4 m) in diameter.

The engine is shown here nestling safely in the Science Museum in London.

Author's photograph

Left: One of the two steam engines of Maxim's flying machine

The high-pressure cylinder is nearer the camera, and has a diameter of 5.05 inches. The low-pressure cylinder is at the rear, and has a diameter of 8 inches. The short cylinder nearest the camera contains the HP valves.

Author's photograph

Left: Sir Hiram Maxim demonstrates the lightness of his engine

Note the valves are driven by skeleton eccentrics to save weight.

Left: The water-tube boiler for the Maxim engine

The boiler was made by Thornycroft, who had much experience in building lightweight steam machinery for the early destroyers. It was fired by naphtha, and produced steam at 320 psi.

Sir Hiram speaks:

"...I decided that in my first experiments at least I would use a steam-engine. I therefore designed and made a steam-engine and boiler of which Mr. Charles Parsons has since said that, next to the Maxim gun, it developed more energy for its weight than any other heat engine ever made. That was true at the time, but is very wide of the mark now."

(Lecture to the Scottish Aeronautical Society, delivered in Glasgow in November, 1913)

Left: The Maxim aeroplane: 1894


THE BRISTOL TRAMP: 1919 The Bristol Tramp was intended to be a steam-turbine driven flying boat. The powerplant was to be two 1500 HP (1120 kW) steam turbines of the Ljungstrøm type, with high-pressure steam provided by flash boilers workin in a closed-circuit. See Wikipedia.


This is probably the best-known of the steam aeroplanes. The Besler brothers (George D Besler and William J Besler) fitted a steam power plant to a Travelair 2000 biplane at Emeryville, California. It made a demonstration flight on 12th April 1933, over Oakland, California, piloted by William Besler.

A fascinating early film of the demonstration flight, including taxi-ing backwards by reversing the engine, can be seen on YouTube.
Many thanks to Denis Vanbrussel for drawing this to my attention.

Left: The Besler Steam Plane being fuelled

From "Floyd Clymer's Steam Car Scrapbook" Bonanza Books.

Left: The Besler two-cylinder steam engine

The engine was a two-cylinder compound in V-configuration; one cylinder ran at high pressure and the other low. It was rated at 90 HP, fed with steam at 1130 psi and 430 degC. It weighed about 500 lbs.

It was designed collaboratively by the Doble Steam Motors Company and the Besler brothers.

Left: The Besler power plant

Steam was supplied by a coil-tube boiler burning oil fuel, with forced draught provided by a fan. The condenser worked at atmospheric pressure. (ie did not create a vacuum)

The propellor was driven directly at 1350 rpm.

From the British journal "Flight" 30th July 1942

Left: The Besler brothers with the converted plane

The cylindrical steam-generator can be seen between the two men.

Left: A report on the Besler Steam Plane

From "Steam car Developments and Steam Aviation" No 28, June 1934.

Unfortunately this report is long on waffle but short on technical detail.

Left: A report on the Besler Steam Plane

Here we learn that the Doble-Besler engine generated 150 BHP with steam at 1200 psi- a healthy power output and an impressively high pressure. Note however that other sources (see above) gave the power output as 90 HP.

It is claimed that the rather small air-cooled condenser could recover more than 90% of the exhaust steam. Given its modest dimensions, I'm not sure that I believe this; even if it was true, a 10% rate of water loss would put a crippling limit on the range of the aeroplane

Left: A report on the Besler Steam Plane

The emphasis on noiseless planes is not as daft as it sounds. In 1934 the main method of detecting aeroplanes was by acoustic location, and effective radar was some years in the future.

Left: A report on the Besler Steam Plane

This appears to be a separate article. It makes some odd claims, namely that it is impossible to stall a steam engine in flight; one would have thought it equally impossible to stall an airborne IC engine in the way you might stall a car engine by using too little throttle or too high a gear. Presumably this is nothing to do with aerodynamically stalling the plane.

I see no reason why a steam power plant should be unaffected by atmospheric conditions. I should have though that the thinner air at altitude would affect the performance of both the boiler and the condenser.

Interesting point about being able to reverse the propellor though.

Left: A report on the Besler Steam Plane

Somehow the idea of making a forced landing and chopping down trees for fuel does not seem too convincing to me. If there are lots of trees, isn't that going to make landing in one piece rather difficult? And surely green wood won't burn very well?


Left: The Huettner Steam Plane

Details from The Daily Telegraph for 16 April 1934, as reproduced in Steam Car Developments and Steam Aviation for June 1934.

I Am Not An Aircraft Designer, but to me these specifications seem highly optimistic.

Left: The Huettner Steam Plane

More details from The Daily Telegraph for 16 April 1934; the second half of the extract.

The sad fate of the Berlin correspondent is probably explained by the following fact; in January 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor, ie head of the German government. Clearly his rearmament plans at that time included steam aviation...

Further details of the Huettner project are proving hard to find, and for that very reason I think it can be safely assumed it was not a success.

Some details of the revolving boiler power-plant can be found on The Rotary Boiler Page.

Wikipedia has a page on steam aeroplanes here.

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