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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But in wartime, slow, safe, and stable were not priorities. Neither were unique, two-levered controls. The Burgess-Dunne could not be a bomber or a nimble fighter, and there weren’t enough wealthy sportsmen to support a civilian market. “Ultimately, Starling wasn’t a manufacturer,” says Howland. “He was fascinated by flight itself. He loved creating aircraft, but not multiple copies. There was a degree of realism that [Glenn] Curtiss had and Sopwith had, that Burgess just didn’t have.” A month after winning the Collier Trophy, the Burgess Company was sold to Glenn Curtiss and became the Burgess division, building Curtiss aircraft.

Burgess continued on with the division until he enlisted in the Navy in 1917. There were orders for more conventional designs, mostly military trainers. The company pushed through World War I with the largest production run it ever had: 460 Curtiss N-9s, which Starling Burgess neither designed nor improved.

On the night of November 7, 1918, a fire completely destroyed the main plant. By then, the war was over, and the military contracts dried up. The Burgess division closed, and Starling ultimately returned to the sea and his beloved yachts. “It’s very easy to criticize him, but look at all he went through,” says Deane. “He was like a child in many ways.”

In June 1914, as Burgess was experiencing the first successes with the Burgess-Dunne, his oldest child, eight-year-old Edward, drowned. Eleven years later, his marriage to Rosamond Tudor began to falter. Burgess married three more times. He explored automobiles, submarines, and ever-advancing yachts. Burgess entered the America’s Cup race as designer and competed against his one-time novice customer Thomas Sopwith. Just as World War I had doomed Burgess’ aviation company, it had made Sopwith a wealthy legend. Sopwith financed and skippered two America’s Cup Challengers in the 1930s. Burgess’ design beat him both times.

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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