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Burnelli (front) designed conventional aircraft like the 1916 Continental Pusher before turning to lifting-fuselage airplanes with the RB-1. (NASM)

The Burnelli Controversy

Was this designer a genius or his own worst enemy?

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.

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.

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