The Burnelli Controversy
Was this designer a genius or his own worst enemy?
- By David Noland
- Air & Space magazine, November 1989
(Page 2 of 5)
In 1949, Goodlin, who had left Bell to start a used-airliner business, was introduced to Burnelli by a mutual friend. The two hit it off immediately. Empathizing with Burnelli’s role as the frustrated outsider, Goodlin grew interested in the lifting-fuselage concept, test-flew the CBY-3, and got hooked. “It was the best-flying airplane of the 10 different types I’ve flown,” he rhapsodizes. “It stalled beautifully. You could cut an engine, pull the stick back in your lap, and it would shudder a little and recover by itself. Try that in a C-46 and you’re in big trouble.”
Goodlin became a stockholder in the Burnelli Company in 1950 and president in 1960. “That about finished me as far as the establishment was concerned,” he says with registration. For, as Goodlin sees it, it has been the aviation establishment that has worked to suppress Burnelli’s accomplishments.
Burnelli was dogged by bad luck. One prototype crashed when the ground crew forgot to put in the aileron hinge bolts; another crashed when the ailerons were hooked up incorrectly to their controls. A major backer went broke and a government loan was called in at just the wrong time. Sales prospects for the postwar CBY-3 plummeted when the market was flooded with surplus DC-3s at $5,000 apiece.
Burnelli was clearly a talented designer, but he sometimes undermined his own cause. Zealously guarding his lifting-fuselage concept, he patented every detail and always seemed to be involved in patent fights, making him appear a secretive, paranoid outsider to some. Around 1930 the U.S. government tried to buy the rights to Burnelli’s patents so that other manufacturers could build Burnelli-style airplanes. Burnelli refused. On the advice of his patent attorney, he also stayed out of the Aviation Manufacturers Association, which had its own cross-licensing and patent-pooling system. At one point Burnelli had a chance to merge with Consolidated, a big establishment manufacturer, but he backed off.
His dealings with the military were also fruitless. Despite repeated rejections, Burnelli constantly bombarded the Army with design proposals that it called “unsubstantiated” and “based on faulty or misleading data.” A 1948 Army chronology of its duels with Burnelli runs 30 pages.
Goodlin describes Burnelli as “too nice a man for the cut-throat aviation business.” Short, shy, mild-mannered, Burnelli was far more comfortable at his drafting board than in the offices of Wall Street financiers or Army generals. “Like so many inventors and technical geniuses, he was not a commercial man,” says Goodlin. “He was an innocent. He didn’t appreciate how dishonest big businesses could be.”
As Goodlin tells it, an event in 1940 perfectly sums up Burnelli’s lifelong bad luck and frustration. His A-1 fighter-bomber design, after gaining the support of General Hap Arnold, won an Army Air Corps competition over Boeing, Douglas, and Lockheed designs. An elated Burnelli, the story goes, was invited to the White House to watch President Franklin Roosevelt sign the production contract. While an aide served champagne in the Oval Office, Roosevelt, pen in hand, casually asked Burnelli who his backer was. When told it was Arthur Pew, the Sun Oil magnate, Roosevelt exploded with anger, threw the pen across the room, and ordered Burnelli out. Pew, it seems, had been a big supporter of Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt’s Republican opponent that year. Burnelli never got the contract.
Shortly thereafter, an Army review board issued a report that denigrated the Burnelli lifting-fuselage concept and stated that no Burnelli design proposal “would ever again be considered by the Air Corps.” Burnelli continued to submit designs anyway, and finally, in 1948, the Air Force tested the CBY-3 at Wright Field. It concluded that the Burnelli was comparable to the Douglas C-47 in handling and performance, but obsolete compared with newer designs then under development. Burnelli, frustrated after so many years of rejection, never built another airplane.