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The first diesel powered engine was developed by the American Packard Motor Company of Detroit  in 1928, thanks to a collaboration with the German aircraft engineer Hermann I. A. Dorner.  Dorner was later to be a key figure in the development of Nazi Germany’s air force.

Hermann I. A. Dorner, 1930. German Aircraft Designer

Hermann I. A. Dorner, 1930. German Aircraft Designer

The first flight of the test plane took place in September 1928 and was so successful that Packard rushed the engine into production built plant during the first half of 1929 solely for the production of its diesel engine.  The factory employed more than 600 men, and 500 engines a month were to have been manufactured by July 1929.

Alvan Macauley (left), President of the Packard Motor Car Co. and Col. Charles A. Lindbergh with the original Packard diesel-powered Stinson “Detroiter” in the background, 1929

Alvan Macauley (left), President of the Packard Motor Car Co. and Col. Charles A. Lindbergh with the original Packard diesel-powered Stinson “Detroiter” in the background, 1929

The Packard diesel aircraft engine  of 1928 was designed to compete with the Wright J-5 “Whirlwind” which powered Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis” in 1927.

Stinson SM-1DX Detroiter. This airplane, powered with original Packard DR-980 diesel engine, made the world’s first diesel-powered flight on September 19, 1928.

Stinson SM-1DX Detroiter. This airplane, powered with original Packard DR-980 diesel engine, made the world’s first diesel-powered flight on September 19, 1928.

The aircraft engine was fuel efficient and allowed the designers to set a world record for the longest duration flight without refueling. Below is a picture of the test pilot:

Walter E. Lees, Packard chief test pilot (in cabin) and Frederic A. Brossy, Packard test pilot, before taking off on their world’s record, nonrefueling, heavier-than-air aircraft duration flight

Walter E. Lees, Packard chief test pilot (in cabin) and Frederic A. Brossy, Packard test pilot, before taking off on their world’s record, nonrefueling, heavier-than-air aircraft duration flight

The success of the new engine led to its adoption by many aircraft companies. Here is a gallery of some aircraft from the early history of aviation.

Packard-Bellanca “Pacemaker.” This airplane, powered by a Packard DR-980 diesel, achieved the world’s record for nonrefueling, heavier-than-air aircraft duration flight. The flight lasted 84 hours, 33 minutes, 1¼ seconds.

Packard-Bellanca “Pacemaker.” This airplane, powered by a Packard DR-980 diesel, achieved the world’s record for nonrefueling, heavier-than-air aircraft duration flight. The flight lasted 84 hours, 33 minutes, 1¼ seconds.

Early Aircraft: Verville “Air Coach,” October 1930

Early Aircraft: Verville “Air Coach,” October 1930

Packard-Bellanca “Pacemaker” owned by Transamerican Airlines Corporation and used by Parker D. Cramer, pilot, and Oliver L. Paquette, radio operator, in their flight from Detroit, Michigan, to Lerwick, Shetland Islands, summer 1931.

Packard-Bellanca “Pacemaker” owned by Transamerican Airlines Corporation and used by Parker D. Cramer, pilot, and Oliver L. Paquette, radio operator, in their flight from Detroit, Michigan, to Lerwick, Shetland Islands, summer 1931.

The new Packard aircraft engine was used in a number of airplanes designed by other aircraft companies.

Ford 11-AT-1 Trimotor, 1930, with 3 Packard 225-hp DR-980 diesel engines.

Ford 11-AT-1 Trimotor, 1930, with 3 Packard 225-hp DR-980 diesel engines.

Towle TA-3 Flying Boat, 1930, with 2 Packard 225-hp DR-980 diesel engines.

Towle TA-3 Flying Boat, 1930, with 2 Packard 225-hp DR-980 diesel engines.

Stewart M-2 Monoplane, 1930, with 2 Packard 225-hp DR-980 diesel engines.

Stewart M-2 Monoplane, 1930, with 2 Packard 225-hp DR-980 diesel engines.

These diesel powered airplanes proved to be an evolutionary dead end, soon superseded by more advanced models using high grade aviation fuel. However it is a real treat to see these early vintage airplanes when engineers and aviators were willing to experiment with new concepts, and when the primitive nature of the airplanes made it possible to create new shapes and concepts with far less cost and less creativity-stifling red tape than exists today.


This article was last updated on April 15, 2021

Victor Doppelt

Victor Doppelt

Victor Doppelt explores the world of yesterday through vintage photographs and informative articles.

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