Besler airplane

Last month I interviewed Gene Burrows out in LaHarpe, Kansas and he was around the SoCal steam world in the 1960’s knowing Chadwell O’Connor and Bill Besler and mostly the Lantermans.  Here is what Gene said about Besler’s steam airplane flight; that Besler made it only for publicity and flew it only once.  The publicity was a great success because many reporters were there with cameras all of whom were expecting it to blow up either in the air or on the ground.  When Bill landed he taxied over to the parking spot, reversed the engine and backed it in.  As a result of the steam airplane he got the navy contract during WWII for smoke generators and made a lot of them and made money with them.  The smoke generators used coils and burners, just like a steam engine.  The only difference is that heavy bunker oil was injected into the hot coils instead of water.   Once Gene saw Besler at Newport Beach and he came up behind him and said he was planning on putting a steam engine into an airplane and without turning around Bill said “Put it in an ultralight”.

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3 Responses to Besler airplane

  1. Unusual engine lover says:

    What is far less known is that the Besler Corporation built a second steam airplane engine in the 1950s for the US Navy. The purpose was to power small STOL aircraft. The engine was completed and bench tested but it never flew. In fact, it was reconverted into a boat (!) engine after and was used successfully. When the boat project was completed, it was reconverted again into its airplane configuration and it is now the engine shown at the National Air and Space Museum at Washington. Another steam engine was also proposed to power a Stits SA-4A airplane (probably the ultralight mentioned). Although these engines were heavier and far less fuel efficient than regular conventional gasoline engines (0.8 lb/hp/hour vs 0.4-0.5 lb/hp/hour, but cheap heating oil can be used instead of AVGAS), they had the advantage of being extremely quiet in operation, which contrast greatly with the Lycoming and Continental engines still used today in light aircraft.

    As the technical reports containing plans can be downloaded from the Navy, it would be interesting to rebuild one and to couple it with a modern quiet propeller design to see how much noise reduction can be achieved. A Cessna or even a modern Diamond airplane could be used as the airframe.

    Report available here:

    • tkimmel3 says:

      In response to mention of Besler’s further work, I have in my library a paper copy of the December 1958 Contract Nonr 1843(00) entitled “Final Report on Design, Construction and Test of an Aircraft Steam Powerplant for the Office of Naval Research. The much better report is the 1954 Besler military steam airplane study that was done for Wichita State University and the military for an STOL boundary layer airplane that was outdated by advancements in helicopter design. The reason for steam power is because the centrifugal air fan needed for STOL work only needed to run during take off and landing. Therefore it was easier to have both engines steam powered so that only the opening and closing of a valve was needed. Otherwise a drive shaft and clutch would be needed, a further complexity for an airplane. Once that engine was made it was modified for a small launch use and tested on the Potomac River for the Navy and then it ended up scrapped. The original airplane engine was sold to the Japanese in the late 1930’s and it disappeared during the war. Besler made an identical engine for display at the Smithsonian. We do not know if that ever ran. Besler also produced Contract Nonr 2159(00) September 1957 entitled “Design Study of a Steam Power System for a Landing Craft Performed for the Office of Naval Research Amphibious Branch” Interestingly enough the steam engine and fuel weighed less than an equivalent diesel power plant and fuel. Besler was very sharp and did much good work. His engines were almost always V-2 double acting compounds with piston valves, thus limiting their thermal efficiency but making them very reliable. I can go on for hours about how a steam powered airplane is a very good idea. Tom Kimmel

      • Dan says:

        Did Boeing ever do a study on the idea of a steam turbine powered bomber in the 1930’s? Don’t know where I heard this but it was supposed to look like a flying wing with two pusher props, and get added thrust from using the condensers like jet engines.

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