Air Assault – Confederate style? Yes, a rebel whirlybird!

A couple of years ago, plans for a Confederate flying machine conceived by dentist Dr. R. Finley Hunt made the rounds.  I must admit, the true scope of early southern aviation research has escaped my studies.  So I was surprised to stumble across a post from the National Air and Space Museum blog discussing another Confederate attempt at heavier than air flight.

The American Civil War brought about great advances in the use of technology in warfare.  Balloons, railroads, ironclad ships, and even a submarine were demonstrated throughout the conflict, and new ideas were constantly being thought up and tried on the battlefield.  Some ideas were more exotic than others, such as the one thought of by William C. Powers.  In 1862, most of the ports of the Southern states were completely blockaded by Union naval forces, choking off much needed supplies and commerce.  William C. Powers was an architectural engineer living in Mobile, Alabama, and personally saw the effects of the Northern blockade.  Powers knew that the southern states did not have enough ships to break the blockade with naval power, and going through the blockade was full of risks.  William Powers saw another way to crush the blockade – attack it from the air.

Using his engineering skills, Powers began drafting plans for a machine that could lift off and propel itself through the air to attack Union ships.  Although balloons were being effectively used for observation, they lacked directional control and could not lift enough weight to make an effective bomber.  Powers drew upon the work of other famous engineers, such as Archimedes and da Vinci, and employed Archimedean screws for lift and thrust, all powered by a steam engine.  The engine was located in the middle of the craft, and used two smokestacks, which can be seen in the drawings.  Two Archimedean screws on the sides gave the helicopter forward thrust, similar to how a propeller works on a ship in water, and two mounted vertically in the helicopter gave it lift.  A rudder was added to the rear of the craft in order to provide steering. …

Accompanying the post are a set of illustrations:

The side views indicate, as described, four screws powered by a steam engine.

A small model does more justice to the design.

The post goes on to describe the fate of Power’s design:

After drafting his plans, Powers set out to make a small model and then a full-size mockup.  Although he had some success creating the small model, as can be seen [above], limited resources and lack of support prevented the idea from ever leaving the drawing board.  Family lore also says that fear prevented the idea from getting off the ground.  When the drawings were donated to the Museum, family members stated that they were hidden during the war to prevent them from falling into Union hands.  It was said that a full size example was never created for fear that it would be captured by the Union, mass produced, and used to rain destruction on the Confederate armies and cities throughout the South.

There are some who will put the inevitable “what if?” on the table here.  Imagine a Confederate aerial envelopment to save Vicksburg?  And Lee really need Stuart at Gettysburg if one of these things had been about?  Perhaps in lieu of that long mach, Jackson’s men could just fly over and land in the open fields near the Chancellor Tavern?  More likely, is IF the whole thing had gotten off the ground to begin with the Yankees would have picked up on the idea and produced more, better machines, just as the article alludes to.  And that’s a big IF.

I look at designs such as Power’s and remain in awe…

of what the Wright brothers did forty years later.

2 responses to “Air Assault – Confederate style? Yes, a rebel whirlybird!

  1. Jeanette Ankerstjerne

    The big problem here would be the Steam Engine.
    Steam Engines tend to weigh a lot and they aren’t really efficient, so the weight of the Steam Engine and it’s fuel (Coal or Wood at that time) would be far beyond the capabilities of an 1860s Steam Engine.
    Only in the 1870s the compound Steam Engine made it possibe for ships to carry more freight than coal.
    The Wright brothers had the advantage of the petrol engine, much lighter and much more efficient. It was just capable of giving enough speed to get their flying machine in the air and fly a short distance.
    Thrilling idea though.


    • Like I said, there’s a big IF in the story. Not the least of which, to generate appropriate lift the screws would be running at an RPM that would require heavy reinforcement… which would add weight… which would lead to a bigger engine… which would require more coal …. and on … and on.