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

(Continued from page 3)

In the meantime, Burgess snapped up several recently released Wright employees: Howard Gill, a wealthy pilot; former exhibition star Walter Brookins; and Wright Company manager Frank Russell. With confidence, Burgess moved deeper into aircraft design.

The first venture was an attempt to win the $15,000 Scientific American prize to create the United States’ first twin-engine aircraft. Working with Howard Gill, Burgess employed two engines—a 60-horsepower V-8 Hall Scott and a 30-hp Wright four-cylinder—mounted in tandem at the nose. Each drove a pair of propellers: one tractor, the other pusher. The airplane met every requirement for the prize, and was the only one to be entered by the July 1912 deadline. But since there were no other contestants, the sponsor decided there was no competition and withdrew the prize. Burgess and Gill received nothing.

The second project focused on the fourth annual Gordon Bennett Cup race, which was coming to Chicago in September 1912. Burgess’ friend Norman Prince and Prince’s business partner, Charles Dickinson, formed the Cup Defender’s Syndicate to win the race. With only six weeks to spare, they commissioned Burgess to deliver a brand-new airplane built around a monster 160-hp Gnome engine. Burgess soon rushed a sturdy little monoplane to Chicago.

Burgess, the syndicate, and the race committee were soon embroiled in an epic argument over the choice of pilot and type of controls. Newly minted aircraft builder Glenn L. Martin was finally chosen to fly. He insisted on using his own controls and smaller wings, which arrived in Chicago just in time for Dickinson to declare the entire episode a fiasco and end the effort. French aviator Jules Verdrines easily streaked to victory in his Deperdussin.

For Burgess, the fiasco was compounded by a far greater loss: Five days after the race, Howard Gill was killed in a mid-air collision.

The Dunne Effort
Over the next year, Burgess found moderate success with military designs, three new hydros, and a flying school. He and Curtis let the agreement with the Wrights wind down and formed a new company.

Burgess traveled to England in the fall of 1913 to see for himself the remarkable work of British designer J.W. Dunne. Dunne had achieved automatic stability with a radical design he first developed in 1906, a swept-wing, tailless biplane whose wing camber gradually twisted down from the root to the tip. Burgess proposed that he be the sole licensee of the Dunne patents, and also develop a hydroaeroplane version. Dunne accepted the deal but, like Wilbur Wright, was skeptical about the hydro adaptation.

In January 1914 Burgess cracked up the first Burgess-Dunne hydro. On the next flight, Clifford Webster easily rose off the water, then climbed, dove, made steep turns, and tried repeatedly to stall. The airplane righted itself every time. When Webster took his hands off the controls, levers locked in place with ingenious ratchets. The Burgess-Dunne flew itself.

On May 2, a committee from the Aero Club of America bobbed in a boat in the harbor, the members hardly believing their eyes. Even with a 40-mph wind, Webster took off hands-free, and remained so as he flew straight at the boat and in circles. Toward the end of the flight, he cut off the engine and lifted his hands in the air again. The Burgess-Dunne spiraled toward the surface. Webster took control with 100 feet to spare and shot back up. He came straight at the committee again, descending, no-hands, until about 50 feet off the water, when he gently dipped the airplane down and landed within a few feet of the boat. The Aero Club’s report was breathless.

For the next two years, Burgess-Dunnes were built for the U.S. military, Canadian Aviation Corps, and wealthy private patrons. Almost all were two-seaters—some tandem, some side-by-side. The Signal Corps version was outfitted with a machine gun. Flying them was so easy that Webster soloed two novices, each with less than two hours’ total instruction. The airplane won Burgess the 1915 Collier Trophy, U.S. aviation’s highest honor.

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.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus