The Burnelli Controversy
Was this designer a genius or his own worst enemy?
- By David Noland
- Air & Space magazine, November 1989
(Page 3 of 5)
Since Burnelli’s death, Goodlin has carried on the crusade alone—39 years of evangelistic fervor that have brought him little but rejection and scorn. It cost him his first wife. “She told me, ‘You love that airplane more than you love me.’ I told her, ‘You’re right, baby.’” He subsequently married his secretary, who, after years of typing acid letters to Burnelli’s foes, presumably knew what she was getting into.
Goodlin targets Boeing as the kingpin in the anti-Burnelli conspiracy. In 1963 he ran into a Boeing marketing executive in Florida and pitched the Burnelli concept. The executive went home enthusiastic, says Goodlin, and promised to talk to his superiors. But he called back and said Boeing wasn’t interested after all. Twelve year later, Goodlin says he got a phone call from the president of Royal Jordanian Airlines. “‘Hey, Slick,’ he told me, ‘I’m here in Seattle looking at a mockup of a Boeing Burnelli. They’re telling me it’s the airplane of the future, and they’re trying to sell me a fleet of ‘em.’”
The mockup turned out to be the model 754 Husky, a freight hauler Boeing developed for a company headed by Ed Cole, former president of General Motors. The Husky did indeed have a Burnelli-style airfoil-shaped fuselage. (In fact, the Boeing patent filing on the 754 cites Burnelli’s earlier patents.) A spec sheet on the 754 surreptitiously mailed to Goodlin by a Boeing engineer showed that, using the same engines as the 767, the 754 had double the 767’s payload.
Goodlin promptly fired off a letter to Boeing asking about royalties; Boeing attorneys sent back a series of increasingly testy letters. The 754 project was eventually shelved—according to Goodlin, to save Boeing the embarrassment of admitting the superiority of the Burnelli concept and to avoid paying him royalties. In a gesture of conciliation, Goodlin offered to drop the matter if Boeing would (a) take out a full-page ad in Business Week apologizing to him for stealing the Burnelli concept for the 754 design, and (b) donate $50 million to an air safety organization designated by Goodlin.
Boeing opted not to comment for this article. “We’re a little skittish on the whole subject of Burnelli,” a Boeing spokesman said.
Goodlin describes evasive treatment by other aerospace companies. He cites as an example a Northrop engineer who wanted to submit a Burnelli design for a Naval design competition. Management killed the deal, transferred the engineer, and told him never to talk to Goodlin again. Goodlin says Northrop was edgy because the Stealth bomber has Burnelli characteristics.
A Northrop source confirms the outline of Goodlin’s tale but says, “Slick didn’t just shoot himself in the foot, he shot his whole foot off. Things were going just fine until he wrote an aggressive legalistic letter to Tom Jones, the chairman. The whole thing blew apart when it hit top management. Slick shoots from the hip, and that prevents him from being taken seriously.”
“The whole aerospace industry is interconnected, and they’ll do anything to stop us,” says Goodlin. “We have enough evidence for a criminal conspiracy.” (He sued the Department of Defense in 1984 but has since withdrawn the suit.) “Things haven’t changed since the 1920s. They’re still a bunch of rotten bastards.”