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Samuel Pierpont Langley at Widewater

Samuel Pierpont Langley

1903 was a banner year for aircraft development, and Stafford County was on the bleeding edge of it. On December 17, Orville and Wilbur Wright had the first successful manned flight of a mechanical, heavier-than-air machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. But two months before that, on October 7, Samuel Pierpont Langley—with the blessings of Smithsonian—launched his design at Widewater in Stafford County. The only problem was, the well-funded flight crashed, dooming Langley’s dreams of being first in flight.

He called it “The Great Aerodrome,” which was understandable since he had had great success with his previous Aerodromes. Number 6 flew 4,200 feet and at about 30 mph on November 28, 1896. But it was unmanned. As Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and a holder of impressive academic degrees, Langley was able to get $50,000 in funding to develop the Great Aerodrome from the War Department.

The day arrived, and Langley, his crew, his houseboat (with catapult!), and loads of newspaper reporters came out to record history being made. It was history… of a sort. The great invention, launched by catapult over Widewater, could not take the strain of being pitched at such a high rate of speed. The front wing was badly damaged, and a reporter on scene declared that it “flew like a handful of mortar.”

The second—and last—launch, just eight days before the Wright brothers’ success, went even worse. On December 9, 1903, the plane catapulted, crashed, and smashed in the water, with the man-on-board Charles Manley nearly drowning in the ice-coated Potomac. He could not really be called a pilot as the aircraft had no steering.

The reporters had a field day with “Langley’s Folly,” and his critics in Washington were livid. The Brooklyn Eagle quoted Representative Hitchcock as saying, "You tell Langley for me ... that the only thing he ever made fly was Government money."

Langley’s reputation for scientific development was in tatters, and he died after a series of strokes in 1906. But that is not the entire story. Although defeated by his manned flight project, Langley is still remembered for his achievements in astronomy, and Langley Air Force Base is named for him. As to Charles Manley, the Manley-Balzer engine that powered the Aerodrome was later revived and used by Glenn Curtiss (Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, later Curtiss-Wright Corporation), and Manley went on to be part of a team that developed the popular Curtiss OX-5 engine.