Fabricating the Langley Aerodrome #5

The Process

Based on Samuel Pierpont Langley’s research notes, the Aerodrome was categorized into systems for research and production: the frame, wings & tail, propellers, engine, and the aeolipile (all components related to steam generation). Different KipAero team members contributed to the building of the Aerodrome depending on their area of expertise.

The Frame

The Aeolipile

The first component of the aeolipile is the air reservoir. Copper sheets are spun over a wooden buck on a lathe, two half spheres are soldered together to form a reservoir. A tube and sclaverand valve is attached to one end to pressurize the reservoir, another line connects to the gasoline reservoir.

Spinning copper to make air and fuel reservoirs.

Steam Separator

The main body of the steam separator is made from three large brass spinnings and requires use of a collapsable buck. Smaller spinnings and other parts are fabricated before the entire steam separator is assembled.

Boiler Coils

Another aeolipile component, the boiler coils are made of thin copper tubing, fitted into a fragile steel framework covered with iron sheeting and a mica window.

Evaporator Coils & Bunson Burners

Evaporator coils warm liquid gasoline into a vapor, from whence Bunson burners heat the boilers, turning water into steam.


Made of white pine, cut and planed into slats, then numbered, glued together in sets of six, with three sets per propeller. Once cured, turn-of-the-century hand tools and methods are used to shape each propeller. A notch is cut for the hub, then the propeller is finely worked to achieve the correct curvature. During the finishing process, each propeller is sanded and shaped to final form until it’s only 2mm thick at the blade ends. Frequently weighed and balanced throughout the process, the hub is fitted, it’s then stained and varnished, ready for final installation onto the Aerodrome in matched right and left-handed pairs.

Steam Engine


Over the years, the original Aerodrome #5 on display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum has been restored and conserved several times. The wings currently fitted are replacements made during its’ 1993 restoration/conservation and are covered in calendared white silk fabric. Langley’s original notes documented the use of “China Silk” covering of the wings and Penaud tail surfaces. China silk was a period term used to reference uncalendared and unbleached silk material woven on a Jaccard or hand-loom, as opposed to the powered looms then in use. China silk would allow for some shrinkage of the material after installation, which would not occur with the tighter woven and calendared silk more commonly available. The two pair of wings are hand-covered, with China silk glued to leading edge and sides, then whip-stitched along the trailing and leading edges, as was the original the day of its’ first successful flight.

Penaud Tail

While it resembles a kite, the tail serves as both stabilizer and automatic pilot for the aerodrome. With engine output changing with a gradually dropping steam pressure over the length of the flight, it was necessary to increase the angle of incidence slightly as the airspeed decreased to prevent the aerodrome from entering a dive. Langley solved a complex aerodynamic equilibrium issue with an elegant and simple solution by fitting a flat hickory spring between the aerodrome frame and tail. Fitted so-as-to provide a slight downward angle to the tail when at rest, during launch and in slow flight it would cause the head of the aerodrome to slightly rise. As airspeed increased, the spring would give way and flex downward lowering the head.

Test Assembly

In April of 2024, Langley Flight Foundation board members visited to inspect progress in anticipation of the VIP unveiling scheduled for May 6th, 2024, one hundred and twenty-eight years after its’ first successful flight of May 6th, 1896. During the visit, they witnessed and participated in a test assembly, very much like that which would have been performed before each test flight. It also gave them an appreciation of the beauty and fragility of the Victorian-age aerodrome.

Time lapsed test assembly of Langley’s Aerodrome #5 reproduction.

Final Fuselage Assembly


The Aero travel team departed five days prior to the VIP unveiling, allowing ample time for travel and the unexpected. Other than highway shutdowns and traffic, no major issues occurred and the aerodrome arrived safely at its’ destination with time to spare.

Langley Aerodrome #5 time-lapse assembly at Stafford Regional Airport, May 4, 2024.
The original flight of Langley’s Aerodrome #5 on May 6, 1896 re-created through historical documents and photographs by Digital Historical Studios.