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))
Air & Space Magazine

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The new Burgess-Wright Model F, nicknamed the Moth, was nearly identical to the Wright B. The Burgess catalog ultimately listed 30 changes to the Wright design, promising better safety, performance, durability, even appearance. It gleamed: nickel-plated fittings, ash and spruce with spar varnish over the aluminum paint, bright white sailcloth made especially by Messrs. Wilson and Silsby, Boston sailmakers.

On April 13, 1911, Burgess made the first flight of a Model F at his new flying school in Mineola, New York. Attached to the aircraft was an homage to his father—a miniature signal pennant copied from the Puritan. Burgess was elated with his machine. Then the Moth was gone.

Charles K. Hamilton, a hell-for-leather type who had flown dirigibles and served as a pilot for the Glenn Curtiss team, appeared at the field and offered to buy the machine. Burgess quoted him $5,000. As Burgess remembered it, Hamilton took off a boot, retrieving and calmly flattening five $1,000 interest-bearing notes into Burgess’ hand. Hamilton towed the airplane to his home in Connecticut. It was back in Marblehead soon enough. Completely untrained on Wright controls, Hamilton demolished it on his first attempt to fly, and returned it for repairs.

Eventually, the school moved back to the Boston area and soon Burgess-Wright Model F pilots were making headlines—none more so than Harry Atwood. Ostensibly a Burgess instructor, he quickly became enamored with long-distance flights all over New England. He offered to fly Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald of Boston (Fitzgerald declined) and buzzed the Harvard-Yale crew races in New Haven. After a flight to New York City, where he circled the skyscrapers and dazzled the throngs below, Atwood was offered $1,000 to continue to Washington, D.C.

He started out from New York on July 4. After a series of mishaps in New Jersey (a crash landing in the surf, swapping the wreck for Hamilton’s Burgess-Wright, and killing a dog that ran into a spinning propeller), Atwood made it to Washington. He landed on the White House lawn and rolled to a stop, without brakes, just 30 feet shy of the not-too-nimble President Taft. A month later, Atwood made the first flight from St. Louis to New York. (The White House Model F, now in the collection of Ken Hyde’s Wright Experience in northern Virginia, is the only restorable Burgess-Wright aircraft in existence. The remnants of a Herring-Burgess Model A are in storage at the National Air and Space Museum.)

As his airplanes’ reputation spread, Burgess began to break from the Wright mold. Despite Wilbur’s skepticism, Burgess designed for the Model F a set of catamaran-style floats whose lower surfaces were arranged like upside-down stairs, or “stepped.” On October 25, 1911, Clifford Webster took off from Marblehead Harbor, and the Burgess worlds of water and air merged.

The hydroaeroplanes, or hydros, as they were called, attracted a lot of press. Their sales roughly equaled those for the land-based Model F. Glenn Curtiss was already aggressively developing hydros, and according to Howland pondered what to do about Burgess as a potential competitor. “[Curtiss said] ‘Maybe we should shut him down. Maybe we should get him off our patents,’ ” says Howland. “But then Curtiss said, ‘Well, the hell with it, we got a lot more important things to do than worry about that.’ ”

One of Harry Atwood’s students, a reporter named Phillips Ward Page, used the Burgess-Wright Hydro to make movies for New York’s Aviation Film Company. Lieutenant Hap Arnold flew them in an action film (The Military Air Scout) and a romance (The Elopement). Arnold made the first military distance flight—42 miles, from College Park, Maryland, to Frederick— in the U.S. Signal Corps Aeronautical Division’s Burgess-Wright Model F, and trained aspiring pilots in that model. He had also seen another example of Burgess craftsmanship up close. On a freezing day in Marblehead in 1912, Burgess had demonstrated a lightweight life preserver he’d developed by putting it on and leaping into frigid water, explaining its features to observers as he bobbed around.

A Burgess-Wright Model F, modified with a Gnome rotary engine and non-Wright controls, became the mainstay of Thomas Sopwith’s first flying school in Brooklands, England. Sopwith rebuilt it with British parts to compete in the British Empire Michelin Cup. It was the first airplane to bear the Sopwith name.

By the late fall and winter of 1911, the Burgess and Wright Companies were fighting over payments, shipments, and royalties. “It was basically a mess within eight months from the time they signed the agreement,” says Howland. “But for all the huffing and puffing, they really didn’t fall apart for three years. The Wrights still wanted to use Burgess, and Burgess thought he was still somewhat protected by the Wrights. It’s a fascinating dance.”

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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