FOR centuries, man had been fascinated by the possibility of flight against the forces of gravity. The first successful heavier-than-air sustained mechanical flights in the history of mankind occurred in Stafford County, Virginia, on May 6, 1896.
On that day, Samuel Pierpont Langley’s Aerodrome No. 5 took flight off Chopawamsic Island in the Potomac waters of Virginia.
It was the world’s first successful flight of an unpiloted, engine-driven, heavier-than-air craft of substantial size.
It was launched from a spring-actuated catapult mounted on top of a houseboat. Two flights were made that day, one of 1,005 meters (3,300 feet) for 90 seconds and a second flight of 700 meters (2,300 feet), at a speed of approximately 25 mph.
On both occasions, the Aerodrome No. 5 landed in the water as planned because in order to save weight, it had not been equipped with landing gear. These initial flights were followed by the successful flight of Aerodrome No. 6 on November 27, 1896.
The May 6 flight was photographed by Alexander Graham Bell. It was his privilege to inform the prestigious international scientific community of this historic event.
“It seems to me that no one who was present on this interesting occasion could have failed to recognize that the practicality of mechanical flight had been demonstrated,” Bell said.
Thus, Stafford County became the birthplace of aviation.
In June 1897, Langley penned an article for the popular and widely-read McClure’s Magazine. “I have thus far had only a purely scientific interest in the results of these labors,” he wrote.
“Perhaps it could have been foreseen at the outset how much labor there was to be, how much of life would be given to it, and how much care, I might have hesitated to enter upon it at all. And now reward must be looked for, if reward there be, in the knowledge that I have done the best I could in a difficult task, with results which it may be hoped will be useful to others.
“I have brought to a close the portion of the work which seemed to be specially mine—the demonstration of the practicability of mechanical flight—and for the next stage, which is the commercial and practical development of the idea, it is probable that the world may look to others.
“The world, indeed, will be supine if it does not realize that a new possibility has come to it, and that the great universal highway overhead is now soon to be opened.”
It is interesting to note that Langley did not encourage those who would follow to develop the techniques and modalities he had used. He simply encouraged them to pursue “the commercial and practical development of the idea.”
On May 30, 1899, Wilbur Wright wrote to Langley at the Smithsonian Institution requesting material pertaining to his aeronautical research. He stated that he wished ”to begin a systematic study of the subject in preparation for practical work.”
The assistant secretary of the Smithsonian directed his staff to assemble a package of papers, including Langley’s story of experiments in mechanical flight and aerodynamics. Wright and his brother, Orville, received the package three weeks later. They credited the material they received with giving them a “good understanding of the nature of the problem of flying.”
It is remarkable that Langley, with not much more than a formal eighth- grade education, became a distinguished astronomer, the father of astrophysics, the inventor of the bolometer, established Standard Time and was named the third secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
The significance of Langley’s contributions to scientific research and aviation continued beyond his death and has been recognized by a grateful nation.
Nowhere else in the commonwealth, our country or the world can a political jurisdiction Stafford can lay claim to one of the greatest achievements of mankind. Every heavier-than-air mechanical aircraft since then in some way owes its origin to the events that took place here in the county 124 years ago on May 6, 1896.
It is incumbent on our community to tell Langley’s story to the fullest. It has significant untapped historical, educational, economic development and tourism potential.
Philip E. Hornung, the former chairman of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors, is the author of the “History of Aviation in Stafford County,” a work in progress.
Philip E. Hornung, the former chairman of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors, is the author of the "History of Aviation in Stafford County," a work in progress.