Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Birth of the American Flying Wing

One hundred years ago today, one of the Navy's first tailless flying wings, a most unusual airplane, set a new US altitude record of 10,000 feet. The plane, serial AH-10, was a Burgess-Dunne BD-2 flown by Lt. Patrick L. N. Bellinger, and the story of these almost forgotten aircraft, which were hailed as one of the most significant developments in aviation at the time is what we'll delve into on this centenary. It can arguably be said that British aeroplane builder Lt. John W. Dunne was the inventor of the tailless flying wing, and that being the case, W. Starling Burgess was the stepfather of the improved and Americanized flying wing. The archive recently acquired a number of original photos of Burgess-Dunne aircraft, and in researching them, I've found that there's a lot of sketchiness to the information about their history out on the net, and downright inaccuracies and confusions, with planes and designations often mixed up! So, this is my attempt to provide some unique photos plus a concise history in one place of the history of this remarkable design (corrections and comments are invited and encouraged via the comments box at the bottom of the article).

The Navy's second Burgess-Dunne, serial AH-10, the 18th aircraft purchased by the US Navy. It became the first American airplane to reach an altitude of 10,000 feet on April 23, 1915. Note the staggered wings, which differentiates AH-10 from its earlier sister, AH-7. (Backstamped as Official US Navy photo, 8x10 print)

Dunne had been obsessed with the idea of designing an airplane that was so stable that virtually anyone could safely fly it. After all, the press of the day, in their ever quest for sensationalism, loved to trumpet how aviation was unsafe, would come to nothing, and was a collossal waist of time and money. Solve the problem of safety, Dunne figured, and the rest would take care of itself. As a British Army officer, he was allowed the time and resources to develop his ideas from 1907-1909, resulting in several gliders and powered aircraft, all tail-less swept-wing biplanes. When he left His Majesty's service, he was allowed to keep his experimental planes (the British Army seeing no future in fixed-wing aviation and only being interested in lighter-than-air-craft), and he and several friends formed the Blair Atholl Aeroplane Syndicate to pursue his design ideas.

The keys to the stability of Dunne's designs was to both sweep the wings in order to put the tips farther aft than the rear of the nacelle, and the incorporation of washout in the wings. The wings were constructed with a fore and aft spar, and the forward spar was mounted with an anhedral (early publications called it an inverse dihedral), while the rear spar was level. This resulted in a lower angle of incidence at the wing tips; in addition, the center of the wings had less camber than the outboard regions. This feature, combined with the 30 degree sweep, resulted in an effect where, at slow speeds, the center of the wing would stall and drop while the outboard sections, including the control surfaces, were still flying. Dunne also progressively changed the camber of the wing from almost nothing at the center to its maximum outboard.

The controls were of a novel design, as well. There were a pair of what today we'd call elevons (he called them "wing flaps"), one on each side of the upper wing (later, wing flaps were added to the lower wing as well), and each side's control surfaces moved independent of the other side's. The pilot then had two controls, one on each side of him. Pull both back or push both forward, and the four control surfaces acted like elevators and moved to pitch the plane. Move the controls in opposite directions, and the surfaces acted opposite each other, like ailerons, rolling the plane. They could also be locked in place, with the pilot flying only by use of the throttle. At the wingtips, "wing curtains" acted as vertical stabilizers; there were no rudder surfaces mounted to them, however.

During a flight demonstration of Lt. Dunne's powered D.5 version on December 20, 1910, Orville Wright watched in fascination. Eventually, the D.5 was damaged in a crash, and was rebuilt as the D.8, which in 1913 flew across the Channel to Paris. Dunne also tried to adapt the design concepts to a monoplane configuration, without much success. By then, though, Dunne was suffering from ill-health, and became discouraged by a general lack of interest in his ideas of aerodynamic stability. He licensed the design of the D.8 to both Nieuport in France (Nieuport flew one at the 1913 Paris Airshow) and the Burgess Company in America, and by 1914, had left aeronautics, preferring to develop new fly fishing techniques and dabble in philosophy (fans of time travel should check out his unorthodox convictions).

Meanwhile, in America, W. Starling Burgess was a natural-born engineer and inventor, and owned a small shipyard which produced his innovative yacht designs in Marblehead, Massachusetts. By 1908 he had become fascinated with the new field of aeronautics, and formed the Herring-Burgess Company with aeronautical pioneer Agustus Herring, who had just left his partnership with Glenn Curtiss. They worked on both in-house designs, as well as obtained a license from the Wrights to build planes commercially. Two years later, Herring was gone, replaced by Greely Curtis (note just one "s") and they formed the awkwardly-named Burgess Co. and Curtis. With his background as a naval architect, Burgess naturally tried to figure out how to turn land planes into seaplanes, starting with the Wright. This upset the paranoid Wright Brothers, however, who insisted as a condition of their contract that licensed-built aircraft not be modified in any way, and the addition of floats violated that condition.

A Burgess-Wright Model F, on take-off, location unknown. The Model F was a license-built version of the Wright Brothers' Model B, and first flew on April 12, 1911. Burgess built an estimated 60-100 model Fs.

In late 1913, Starling Burgess sailed for England to look into the Dunne design, and see if there would be potential for license-building that aircraft in America. With J.W. Dunne amenable, with license terms not as restrictive as the Wrights, Burgess started to build his first flying wing based on the D.8, though incorporating some improvements. The first plane, the BD-1A (sometimes referred to as the BD-1A, you'll see why in a minute) was single-place and convertable between landplane and seaplane. After some initial testing as a land plane, Burgess removed the cumbersome wheel-and-skid landing gear and replaced it with a flat-bottomed, single-stepped pontoon (likely borrowing the idea of the Curtiss Triad's design but adding the step that was just coming into use) which was about 17 1/2 feet long and three feet in beam, with two smaller non-stepped pontoons on the wing tips. Dunne had been initially skeptical about the idea of adding a pontoon, thinking that the added drag would compromise the plane's inherent stability. Burgess also designed a more enclosed nacelle for the pilot (this was a single-seat airplane). Whereas Dunne had used engines ranging from 60-80hp in his D.8, Burgess initially used a 100hp Curtiss OXX-2. 

(A note on the model designations: Burgess didn't have a strict naming or numbering scheme for his planes, and seemed to refer to them in different ways at different times. The scheme used here, starting with BD-1 and running through BD-12, was devised after-the-fact by historians, led by the Massechusetts Aviation Historical Society - which gathered much of their information on the development of the line from company pilot Clifford Webster - in order to bring some sense to the evolution of the designs.)

On January 16, 1914, Burgess climbed onboard to make the plane's first flight. Unfortunately, he misjudged his takeoff run (or rather, misjudged the length of the harbor), and when it looked like he was going to run out of room, he pulled both control levers back to the stops. With insufficient speed to fly away, the nose pitch up severely, stalled, and the plane came down and hit chunks of floating ice, causing quite a lot of damage.

A few parts were salvaged and used in building the BD-1B, which flew successfully on March 4, 1914. Burgess dispensed with the enclosed nacelle, and instead made it a two-place aircraft where the pilot and passenger essentially sat on an open platform, like the original Dunne D.8.

By all accounts, the attempt to create a safe and stable aircraft was wildly successful, and though to us today the unique control system may seem cumbersome, it wasn't seen that way at the time, and in fact was noted as being intuitive and efficient. Time and again, Clifford Webster would put the plane though its paces for astonished observers - laymen and aviation experts alike - on the ground. One of the demonstration flights, which took place on May 2, 1914, was for a delegation from the Aero Club of America. The distinguished gentlemen took their place in a small boat in the middle of the bay, and despite 40 mile-per-hour winds, Clifford Webster took to the air to show off. The following narrative comes from the Aero Clubs official report of the event:

The Burgess-Dunne solves the problem of inherent stability and represents an important development in American aeronautics. The demonstrations began at 10.57 A. M. A stiff northwestern wind of about forty miles was blowing; it was thirty-two miles per hour from Blue Hill Observatory. The sea was choppy with whitecaps showing. The pilot, Mr. Clifford Webster, started from the dock where the seaplane was moored, 'taxied' out a few hundred feet, the rode in the air and flew toward the observers' boat, which was then about on and one-half miles from shore and two miles from the starting point. The observers, who watched the manoeuvers with powerful field glasses, saw Mr. Webster take his hands off the controls as he approached and the machine continued its flight without the slightest change of evenness. Then followed four circular flights, at a height of about 200 feet; during the fourth circle the pilot took his hands off the contols and held them over his head. The seaplane descneded in a spiral, during which the plane was but slightly inclined. Then rising to a height of about 500 feet, the pilot took his hands off the levers and glided in a stright line toward the boat of the observers. At a height of about fifty feet he reassumed control, threw the machine to a steep angle of descent, then straightened it and landed lightly within ten yards of the point first touched and 'taxied' to three yards from the observers' boat.

At 11.27 Webster cranked the motor, climbed to his seat and 'taxied' to a point 200 yards away, where he turned the seaplane, facing the observers and took his hands off the levers. The machine glided for about 250 feet, then rose in the air, the pilot's hands still off the levers, where they remained until the seaplane had reached a height of about forty feet.

Following the speed tests, which showed 58 3/4 miles per hour, the seaplane rose to a height of about 400 feet, described a wide half-circle, then flew in a straight line for a distance of about two miles, then described four circles, just over the observers' boat, during which the machine banked at a steep angle. In the last two circles aviator Webster held his hands over his head to the amazement of the observers, in turns when the machine banked even keel. At the end of the last circle, with the wind still blowing at forty miles an hour, Webster rose to a height of 1200 feet, then cut off the power, and took his hands off the control. The seaplane glided down at a slight angle; at about forty feet from the water Webster reassumed control, forced the machine to a steep angle of descent, then straightened and landed lightly a few feet from the observers' boat. The time occupied by the glide was 43.1 seconds.

In the afternoon, between 1.40 and 4.30 o'clock were given demonstrations in passenger-carrying, taking passengers and gasolene [sic] from boats two miles from shore. Among the passengers carried were four members of the committee, and one woman, Mrs. Elliot Benedict.

During the flights the members of the committee had occasion to study the operation and action of the seaplane at close range, and were amazed at the extraordinary demonstrations of inherent stability, airworthiness and ease of operation. In all the turns the seaplane mantained its height without the slightest drop; during the flights uncontrolled by the pilot the machine corrected its lateral deviations mechanically and maintained even flight; in landing it glided lightly on thewater, appeared easily controlled and floated well.

The unanimous opinion at the end of the tests was that the Burgess-Dunne solves the problem of inherent stability and represents an important development in American aeronautics." (Boston Evening Transcript, May 9, 1914)
This is probably the BD-1B while being demonstrated. Note that the pilot's hands are off the controls. Sadly, the Archive's copy of the photo is not an original print, and is not as clear as one would like.

Initially, the company used this first plane for in-house testing and training, as well as making demonstration and sales flights. At this point, the story of this plane gets a bit weird, and it becomes a memorable symbol of the nation of Canada.

That nation was about to send its First Canadian Expeditionary Force off in October 1914 to join their English brethren in The Great War, and wanted an aeroplane of their own to contribute to the effort. One particular enthusiast for aviation was a guy named E. L. Janney. He was provisionally commissioned with the rank of Captain and sent off with a check for $5,000 in his pocket to look for a suitable aeroplane in the US which could be delivered quickly. He visited several manufacturers in New England and pretty much struck out before arriving at Marblehead on September 17, 1914. The only thing that Burgess and crew had flyable at the moment was the BD-1B, and it had had a lot of hours put on the engine, and really was in need of some TLC, and so Starling was rather reluctant to sell it. But in the end, Janney prevailed, and bought the plane (on the pontoon) plus the land undercarriage, but no other spares. Because the Canadian wasn't yet trained to fly, Burgess' chief pilot Clifford Webster agreed to make the delivery flight to Quebec. The plane was given some cursory maintenance, then put on a railroad flat car for the ride to Isle La Motte, Vermont. Reassembled there, on September 21 Webster and Janney took off for Valcartier, Quebec.

They didn't make it far, and the engine pretty much self-destructed, requiring the pair to set down on the Laurent River at Deschaillons. For an additional $2,500, Burgess sent a replacement engine and a mechanic to do the work, and the plane was flyable again on September 28th. They were so late, though, that they bypassed Valcartier and headed for Quebec City, landing in the harbor. With no time to waste, the plane was craned onto the deck of the SS Athenia for the trip across the Atlantic. However, the only precautions taken were to lash the plane to the deck...nothing was covered, nothing was protected, and the storms encountered on the voyage took their toll. Once in the UK, the plane was set aside (remember, no one had bothered to purchase any spare parts to repair anything, nor was anyone in the Canadian contingent really trained to fly the thing!), and there it sat, on the Salsbury Plain, again completely unprotected from the elements. And it pretty much rotted away, never to make another flight. With no plane to fly, Janney resigned his commission and went home. And yet, to this day, the BD-1B is celebrated by Canadians as their first warplane, and even has had it's own commemorative postage stamp.

The US Navy, still very much experimenting with the potential that airplanes could bring to the fleet, decided to try the B-D design, and acquired two, the first a BD-2 they designated AH-7, and the second a BD-5 designated AH-10. It is important to note that the designations "AH-7" and "AH-10" were serial numbers (or in contemporary Navy parlance, Bureau Numbers), not model numbers, as is often mis-reported on the internet. When the Navy started to buy airplanes in 1911, they started giving them individual alphanumeric numbers (starting with the first Curtiss Triad, which was A-1; click for a list). In 1914, after having acquired 14 aircraft, they changed their numbering system, renumbered thirteen of the fourteen (AB-1 through AB-7, AH-1 through AH-6; list), and then kept going from there. Thus, the Navy's two B-D aircraft were their fifteenth and eighteenth airplanes overall.

AH-7 on a takeoff run during Navy sea trials. Note the unstaggered wings and tandem seating, which distinguishes AH-7 from AH-10. Not sure which ship that is in the background. 

AH-7 first flew on October 10, 1914, and was delivered to Pensacola shortly thereafter. At one point, it was modified with bomb racks under the left wing, and there is some indication that for a time it wore a lavender and green camoflage paint scheme (which must have been quite a sight! Sadly, vintage black-and-white photos often don't convey such chromic brilliance). It was gone from the Navy's records by January, 1916.

AH-10 entered the record books on April 23, 1915 when Lt. Patrick L. N. Bellinger piloted her to a new US altitude record, 10,000 feet, over Pensacola during a 1 hour, 19 minute flight. Bellinger, who was Naval Aviator No. 4, was one of the first Navy pilots to see combat, in Vera Cruz, Mexico, and was nominated for a Medal of Honor (though ultimately not awarded). He later flew Curtiss NC-1, one of the three Nancy Boats to attempt to cross the Atlantic (only NC-4 made it; Bellinger and NC-1 had to put down near the Azores due to heavy fog, and the plane was damaged beyond repair by the heavy seas). Bellinger ultimately retired in 1947 as Vice Admiral after serving as Commander, Air Force, Atlantic Fleet.

The US Army Signal Corps had shown interest in the design as early as 1913, and when Burgess started building them, they placed an order, receiving hydroaeroplane BD-3 (marketed as the "Burgess-Dunne Military Aeroplane"), powered by a nine-cylinder Salmson radial engine, as Army serial number 36. It was delivered December 30, 1914 to North Island, San Diego. Unlike the early models with their flat decks on which the pilot and passenger sat, the BD-3 had a rather boxy nacelle, complete with 1/8 inch thick nickel steel armor plate, making this the heaviest version yet built. It was also equipped with a machine gun at the forward crew station (the pilot sat in the aft) and so although this wasn't the Army's first airplane (they'd bought a number of Wright flyers), since it was armed it was hailed in the contemporary media as the Army's first "warplane". In the spring of 1915, it was modified as a land plane and assigned to the Army's Coast Artillery for use as fire control support. It had been dropped from inventory by October 18, 1916.

An ad from 1915, featuring the BD-3
BD-4 became known as the "Russian Burgess-Dunne". Built by the company as a military demonstrator aircraft, it was powered by a Gyro 110 hp rotory engine. A New York agency by the name of Gaston, Williams and Wigmore visited Marblehead ostensibly at the behest of the Czarist Russian government, looking at the possibility of purchasing aircraft for Mother Russia. There were lots of reports in the contemporary media that BD-4 and possibly other production aircraft were sold to the Russians, but there is no conclusive evidence that this was true. However, Burgess ads which repeatedly appeared in the industry magazine Aeronautics claimed to have furnished B-Ds to Russia.

A BD-6 beached, probably at Pensacola. Note the dog. And any guesses as to the name of the gunboat in the background would be appreciated. (Backstamped as Official US Navy photo, 8x10 print)
In May, 1915, it was announced that the Navy had decided to purchase three more Burgess-Dunne aircraft of an updated configuration, which the factory called the BD-6, assigning them Bureau Numbers A-54 through A-56 (the service re-doing their numbering scheme yet again, beginning with A-51). Rather than the side-by-side seating arrangement of earlier aircraft, the BD-6 featured a bullet-shaped nacelle with tandem seating and was powered by a liquid-cooled 140-hp V-8 Sturdent 5A. The shape of the main pontoon had matured, as well, becoming more aerodynamic.

Flight testing began in September, 1916, when the cruiser USS North Carolina arrived off of Marblehead. The ship had been detached from the Atlantic Fleet specifically for use in testing seaplanes. While this turned out to be the fastest of the Burgess-Dunnes, hitting 80 mph, there were problems with this new design, however. Initial testing performed by Webster showed an unexpected longitudinal instability (ie, the exact opposite of the conditions that Dunne was after in the first place), which was most pronounced in terms of uncontrollability in a dive. The Navy returned all three aircraft, and the Burgess engineers went to work to figure out the problem, using the new wind tunnel at MIT.

A BD-6, probably A-54, takes off with the cruiser USS Columbia (C-12) in the distance on March 3, 1916, off shore from Pensacola. The Columbia, at this time, was serving as the flagship of the Atlantic submarine flotilla, and typically would transit between sub bases on inspections. Her presence in this photo suggests that AH-54 was taking part in sub patrol evaluations at this time. (Backstamped as Official US Navy photo, 8x10 print)

What they found was that by re-positioning the wings slightly, and readjusting the planes center of gravity, the instability went away. Here, the vagaries of time have introduced some uncertainty. One aircraft was modified with the fix, and accepted by the Navy. One source says that this was serial A-54, another says that it was A-55 (based on what I know about the sources, I'm leaning toward it being A-54; but I'm open to input and discussion); in any case, whichever it was, it was struck from the Navy's inventory in December 1917 (why is not clear). The cost of modifying the other two aircraft was deemed too high, and the Navy rejected them. Again, more vagaries in the story - depending on what source you refer to, some say that this rejection was the end of the story, whereas others indicated that the contract was funded once again in January 1918, and that A-55 and A-56 were ultimagely accepted. These two were, were removed from the inventory by October 1918, which pretty much ended the military's use of flying wings until Jack Northrop re-introduced the concept to the Army Air Corps in the 1940s.

The civilian market for Burgess-Dunnes was starting to pick up, as well, and out of the blue, the manufacturer scored big with one of the most influential customers in New England. Vincent Astor, son of and heir to tycoon and Titanic drowning victim John Jacob Astor IV, became fascinated with the Burgess-Dunne concept (which is entirely possible when you inherit the fortune of one of the richest men on earth) and ordered one. The BD-7 started out as a break from the traditional Dunne configuration and melded the wing concept with a Curtiss-style flying boat hull. Astor started flying lessons with Clifford Webster on April 27, 1915, while his plane was still under construction.

But the new BD-7 was destroyed during flight testing when Webster hit a seawall while trying to land on Marblehead Harbor. When the replacement was built, Burgess reverted to the tried and true pontoon configuration, finally delivering the new plane in August. The wings of this configuration were built modularly in four sections, which allowed for ease of disassembly for shipping. BDs with this feature can be identified by the short non-swept center section of the upper wing. Astor being Astor and needing a place to keep his BD, also commissioned the company (remember, they had roots in building boats) to build a very unique floating hangar on a small barge hull, which could be towed behind his yacht Noma to Florida in the winter.  It had an overhead crane ("trolley" is what they called it) which would lift the plane out of the water and pull it inside.

In the fall of 1915, Astor and his BD-7, as well as a speedboat, participated in an exercise off of New London, Connecticut, where they "hunted" two Navy subs which, in turn, tried to avoid detection. The combined air-speedboat team managed to find one of the subs and direct a Navy destroyer to it, and it was judged a kill.

And Astor wasn't the only upper-crust gentlemen to purchase a BD plane. Thoroughbred horse breader Harry Payne Whitney purchased one similar to Astor's, but without the sectionalized wings, designated a BD-8; he based the plane at Manhasset Bay, Long Island. The most sales, though, were of the BD-9, again very similar to Astor's reconfigured BD-7 (Burgess advertised the BD-7 thorugh -9 as the "Sportsman" model). One of the principle differences was the relocation of the radiator to the rear of the engine, cutting down on drag. At least six were built, the first one going to industrialist (and founder of the Aero Club of New England) Godfrey L. Cabot, who named it Lark. With war afoot in Europe, fears of U-Boats were rife on the east coast, a number of these richest of the rich reacted accordingly, and used their resources to bolster local militias. Cabot organized the Independent Aviation Corps (try doing something like that today!) in 1915, which became part of the Massachusetts Naval Militia the following year. In that capacity, he would fly the BD-9 with Clifford Webster patrolling Massachusetts Bay and Boston Harbor. Webster and Cabot made one notable flight over Boston on May 27, 1916 in conjunction with the Boston Preparedness Demonstration. During the flight over the city and the parade below, Cabot dropped thousands of leaflets urging a greater effort for preparedness for war.

Both Norman Cabot (a famous ivy-league college football player from the 1890s, no relation to Godfrey) and Eben Draper Jr (son of the two-time Massachusetts governor) were also members of the Massachusetts Naval Militia, and also bought BD-9s, which suggests that this militia also doubled as a rich-boys' flying club of sorts.

Astor joined the New York Naval Militia, part of the New York National Guard, and with his influence, that organization started to look at acquiring some armored BD-9s. These were paid for by raising subscriptions from a number of wealthy New Yorkers, including Astor, Commodore Foreshew and others. The Aero Club of America also pitched in some cash for the effort. When the first one was ready for delivery, on May 20, 1916, Astor brought a delegation from the Second Battalion to Marblehead on the Noma to evaluate the plane. They were quite pleased with what they saw, and brought the first of two back with them on the yacht a week later. The Second Battalion set up its aviation headquarters on Astor's estate at Rhinebeck, on the Hudson River, with their first BD-9 as well as Astor's BD-7.

On July 1, with 350 invited guests at a gala at the foot of Brooklyn's 52nd Street, Mrs. Astor christened the first BD, and the committee that purchased it formally presented it to the State of New York. There is some indication that the Militia bought a third one for themselves, but I've not seen confirmation of that. Aerial Age Weekly, for July 10, 1916, spoke of the ceremony in lofty terms. "When Mr.s Astor had broken a bottle of champagne on the shell the official guests were taken to he United States Ship Gloucester, formerly J. Pierpont Morgan's yacht Corsair, which is now used as a training ship for the Second Battalion, to watch the first official flight. Alongside the Gloucester...was Vincent Astor's yacht Noma. While the guests were being transferred to the yachts by launches, a giant crane lifted the new air machine into the water. Vincent Astor, in the uniform of an ensign, supervised the towing, and when out in midstream, Ensign Samuel Pierce started it under its own power. The plane rose gradually and traveled about six miles at a rate of thirty-five miles an hour. ...Pierce had sent it skimming over the water and then taken it 800 feet in the air, while passing boats whistled a salute."  The New Jersey Naval Militia bought a BD-9 as well.

A Burgess-Dunne BD-9 Hydroaeroplane flies over the SS Asbury Park. The Archive's copy of this photo is a glass magic-lantern slide. It's hard to determine which plane this is, but it is most likely the single BD-9 which served with the New Jersey Naval Militia. 

The ship was operated by the Jersey Central Railroad from when she was new in 1903 through the end of the summer season in 1916, helping establish a cutoff date for when this photo could have been taken. The ferry, amazingly, was rebuilt several times from the waterline up, and lasted until she was finally scrapped in 2009!

In August, 1916, the Burgess Company hosted a flight test program using a BD to try to develop a wireless radio system for aircraft. Radio still used morse code, and the biggest challenge was for the pilot to be able to hear the signal above the roar of the engine mounted right behind him. For this set of experimental flights, which was done in cooperation with the firm of Cutting & Washington (the principals being two young Harvard engineers), a generator, sending and receiving equipment and a trailing antenna were added to one of the company's demonstrator aircraft. The key, as described in Aerial Age Weekly, is that "the radio operator in the machine wears a brass helmet, which is designed to be as nearly as possible soundproof. It completely covers the head and sits on his shoulders." Sounds quite uncomfortable!

The Army took one more stab at using a Burgess-Dunne, ordering one for a special research project on September 27, 1916, which became the BD-10 (sometimes referred to as a Burgess Dunne H), and carrying Army serial number 136. John Jays Hammond, Jr. was an inventor who is widely regarded as the father of radio control. A protege of Alexander Graham Bell, Hammond had devised a method of radio controlling a torpedo, and the Army wanted the Burgess-Dunne for the project, and planned on equipping the plane with state-of-the-art radio gear. The Army cancelled the contract on June 18, 1917, using a Curtiss R-4 instead. It's unclear whether the BD-10, which was to have staggered wings, was actually completed. The BD-11 (or BDH-11) also was designed with staggered wings, as a military demonstrator. While it was built, there is no record of a military sale.

The Collier Trophy in all its glory. The lower
base is not ususally displayed at NASM, sadly.
This was taken at the ceremony awarding the
trophy to another tailless Navy aircraft, the
X-47B, the team I've been privileged to be a 
member of.
The final Burgess-Dunne built, finished in the fall of 1916, was the BDF-12 (sometimes just BDF), which was a second attempt (after the crashed initial BD-7) to mate a Curtiss boat hull with the BD wing structure. It, too, had staggered wings.

For his work in maturing the original Dunne design, Starling Burgess was named the 1915 recipient of the the Aero Club of America Trophy (later renamed the Robert J. Collier Trophy in 1944). The Award was established by Collier, the son and heir of P.F. Collier, the publisher of the popular magazine Collier's Weekly. The younger Collier was an avid sportsman and aviation enthusiast (he was the first person to purchase a plane, a Model B, from the Wrights for personal use), and used his upper-crust standing to help promote the young industry with the award. The trophy is awarded annually by the National Aeronautics Association "for the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America, with respect to improving the performance, efficiency, and safety of air or space vehicles, the value of which has been thoroughly demonstrated by actual use during the preceding year." Burgess was the fifth recipient of the award, following Glenn Curtiss (twice), Orville Wright and Elmer Sperry.

The first 16 recipients of the Collier Trophy
All tolled, Burgess built 26 Dunne-type aircraft. Though the Burgess Company was busy building airplanes, Starling still kept his hand in the marine world, too, designing a 14-foot sailboat (aka cat boat) called the Brutal Beast, which became had excellent sales and became a very popular boat in the region. In March 1916, a month after the Collier award ceremony, Burgess sold the company to John N. Willys, who in turn sold it to Glenn Curtiss, which then became the largest aircraft manufacturer in America, producing ten planes a day. The Marblehead operation was operated for a time as an independent entity from the Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor Co. Starling Burgess stayed on until 1917, when he joined the Navy and helped them design airplanes. In 1918, the Marblehead factory burned to the ground, effectively bringing the history of the Burgess company to a close. After WWI, Starling Burgess continued to design yachts, and built three defenders of the America's Cup (Enterprise, 1930; Rainbow 1934; Ranger, 1937). As a naval architect for ALCOA, he helped introduce corrosion resistant aluminum as a feasible, lightweight material for yacht hulls. During WWII, he served as a civilian engineer to the Navy, working on anti-submarine warfare techniques. He passed away on March 19, 1947.

But even though the Burgess-Dunnes disappeared into obscurity, that wasn't the end of the story. I suspect that, in the back of his mind, Glenn Curtiss knew what he'd bought when he absorbed Burgess' company. The late teens just wasn't the right time for a super-safe, inherently stable every-man's airplane. But then along came the roaring 20s, barnstormers, and Charles Lindbergh, and the world had grown up, and suddenly flying - as opposed to rail travel - was all the rage with the upper crust, and where the rich go, the middle class inevitably follow. I can imagine Curtiss pondering that finally, the time was right for a simple, safe and affordable airplane. Maybe there was something to that revolutionary, Collier-winning design that had been shelved all those years earlier (Curtiss wasn't alone in thinking that a flying wing would fit the flivver bill, as several others were pursuing the same thought at about the same time, including Waldo Waterman and his Whatsit, as I wrote in an earlier post).

Curtiss teamed with J.W. Davis, who had once worked as an engineer at Burgess and with whom Curtiss was involved in real estate investment, as well as retired USMC Maj. B.L. Smith to form the Safety Aircraft Corporation. Called the Arrowhead Safety Airplane, or B-2 (how's that for irony?), the concept kept the basic Dunne layout, but modified the control system to incorporate conventional pilot controls connected to split elevons mounted to the top wing only. The small plane was powered by a three-cylinder Szekely engine. The design was targeted for a purchase price of a mere $1,000. Two were built, NX899Y and NX10405, the latter making up to 34 flights before the project, like so many others, fell victim to the Great Depression. So maybe Curtiss was wrong...the time still wasn't right. Before the first flight could take place, though, Glenn Curtiss died on July 23, 1930.

Caption pasted to the back of this slightly retouched news release photo:Glenn Curtiss' "Air Flivver" Successful. Miami Fla: The last invention that took the entire attention of the late Glenn Curtiss, pioneer aviator, makes its first official flight at Miami, Fla. Shortly before his death Mr. curtiss worked day and night with confederates on this "Air Flivver" believing it to be the future Ford of the air. It is a paradox in design, having no tail. It has a landing speed of 19 m.p.h. and cannot loop, spin or dive. Mr. Curtiss believed it could be manufactured to sell at $1,000. The  plane is powered by a three cylinder motor and is known as the "Aerohead Safety Plane". Photo shows the tailless Safety Plane taking off in Miami, Fla. Note the absence of a tail. it is very small, measuring less thatn 35 feet across the greatest spred of its wings. Mar. 4, 1931, Miami News Service. [Note...the first flight actually took place in December, 1930]

Interesting links:


  1. Good evening. I have a blog called "" and in it I put a link to your blog this because I find it very good. I think your blog almost as an aviation encyclopedia.

  2. An excellent account-Thanx for it.The fate of the BD shipped with the Canadian expeditionary force started a tradition of picking good designs.So the unused rotting wasn't in vain.It was a pity though given how many pilots died in training on not understood unstable "aircraft".
    Starling B. did work later with Buckminister Fuller on his Dymanxion Car projects both as designer and test driver.
    I was informed he was getting in bad shape by that time -by a saddening addiction I had no idea existed though the effects of his reported poison of choice where known too me.
    Such splendid discernment on selecting Dunne's work for further development.Pity it wasn't given the attention it deserved.
    Todd Millions