The Most Talented Aviation Pioneer You’ve Never Heard of

Starling Burgess beat the Wright brothers at their own game.

In 1911, Starling Burgess towed one of his early aircraft from his seaside Massachusetts factory to an air meet at Squantum field, outside Quincy. Squantum would become known as the place where Harriet Quimby fell to her death from a Blériot in 1912. (NASM (IA17495))
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Herring was an ex-assistant to Langley and had piloted Chanute gliders. He visited the Wrights’ camp in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and later tried to force the brothers into a partnership, claiming equal success in powered flight. He partnered with Curtiss, based on a pretense of owning patents that would circumvent the Wrights’. (The Wright patent for the three-axis control of flying machines was a hurdle for early airplane manufacturers. The Wrights held that it covered the principle of control, while others, especially Curtiss, claimed it covered only their particular control mechanism—wing-warping. Early manufacturers had a choice: Try to avoid the Wrights’ patents with novel designs, openly risking lawsuits and injunctions claiming infringements, or pay for a license from the Wrights. By 1909, when Burgess first contacted Herring, no U.S. manufacturer had requested a license.)

In late 1909, Burgess visited Herring’s New York City workshop. Regardless of Herring’s past—of which Burgess may have known nothing—the would-be aviation pioneer had what Burgess needed: some design and construction experience, a head start with a partially completed airplane, even an engine and some propellers. And Burgess had excellent facilities. They shipped Herring’s incomplete airplane to Marblehead and signed a contract creating the Herring-Burgess partnership.

Their first airplane, called the Flying Fish, was rushed to Boston to participate in the February 1910 Aero Show. Its fine workmanship drew attention. One man told Burgess, “Your ship is like a little dancing girl on her toes. The others are like cows.” Another visitor, Greely S. Curtis, had flown with Otto Lilienthal, and, thanks to his successful “fire stream gauge,” which measured the flow from firefighting hoses, was financially secure. Curtis liked what he saw.

The Flying Fish was moved to frozen Chebacco Lake, northeast of Boston. On February 28, 1910, Burgess got Augustus Herring to actually fly an airplane. It had to perform. A Kansas showman named C.W. Parker had already offered them $5,000 for the machine. Herring opened the throttle, and 120 yards later came down hard, smashing the skid landing gear.

Herring’s clumsy piloting was partly the result of the bizarre controls he and Burgess had designed. The forward elevator was controlled by one foot pedal, the throttle with another. The rudder was controlled by thumb devices: one for left, the other for right. To avoid the Wrights’ patent, the airplane had no ailerons; instead, a row of six triangular fins was mounted on the top wing (hence the name Fish). Parker, whose criteria for safety were evidently as dubious as the Flying Fish’s airworthiness, handed over a check. The ship was repaired and shipped to Kansas. Burgess was in the airplane business.

In April 1910, the second Flying Fish (now with eight stabilizing fins) was shipped on the Burgess steamer Ox to nearby Plum Island. (Burgess’ wife, Rosamund, was the certified steam engineer on board.) Herring and Burgess both flew, as did brave but inexperienced William Hilliard. By the end of June, he could complete a full turn. Norman Prince, Burgess’ friend and the future leading founder of the Lafayette Escadrille, got a chance at the controls, as did Greely Curtis, the wealthy admirer from the Boston show. Although Curtis demolished the Flying Fish II, Burgess invited him to join the company, which produced a third version of the Flying Fish with improved controls and without the useless fins. Five were built; four were sold.

Herring’s role diminished. He was no longer the only pilot, and his controls and propellers were discarded for better versions. Burgess had design talent and Curtis had the money. “It didn’t take Starling long to figure out—and I say this kindly—that [Curtis] was a potential meal ticket,” says Bill Deane, president of the Massachusetts Aviation Historical Society. Howland adds: “Burgess always needed a patron, and Curtis’s skin was in the game all the way.” Their venture, called The Burgess Company and Curtis, was established, and Herring left Marblehead for good.

As Models B, C, and D evolved, Burgess and Curtis remained on an experimental course, still grappling with the problem of a non-infringing control system. Burgess and Hilliard competed at the Harvard-Boston Aero Meet in September 1910, where the results were less than impressive. But Englishman Claude Grahame-White, who dominated the meet, was so impressed with the Burgess airplane’s construction that he commissioned Burgess to manufacture several Model E’s, a Farman adaptation built to Grahame-White’s specifications.

Aviation Royalty
Burgess’ handiwork also attracted Wilbur Wright. Although Burgess, like everyone else, had tried to avoid the Wright patents, once he met Wilbur, Burgess flaunted conventional wisdom.When the two met at the New York Yacht Club, Wilbur made him an offer. For a $1,000 royalty per airplane, Burgess and Curtis would be the sole U.S. Wright licensee, paying a fee for each airplane built, but free from infringement lawsuits and with other protections the Wrights could offer. They could purchase as many Wright engines, propellers, and other components as they wished. Burgess and Curtis decided the deal was a safer bet than chancing a legal fight over the control patent. And Burgess wanted to be associated with the Wrights because he thought Wilbur was a genius. “Wright’s eyes glowed with animation as he spoke, and through them, rather than any outstanding mark of the man’s appearance, shone his greatness,” he wrote in his autobiography.

Taking Wilbur’s advice, he enrolled in the Wrights’ winter flying school in Augusta, Georgia, to learn fromFrank Coffyn. With classmate Norman Prince, Burgess delighted in the ease of flying the Wright machine. He and his wife visited Dayton in March 1911, and Burgess returned to Marblehead, armed with real flying skills, the confidence of a man he deeply admired, and the exclusive U.S. license.

About Paul Glenshaw

Paul Glenshaw is a frequent Air & Space contributor who writes from Silver Spring, Maryland. He created education programs for the Wright Experience and Discovery of Flight foundation, and is the co-writer and co-director of the documentary The Lafayette Escadrille.

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