The Burnelli Controversy

Was this designer a genius or his own worst enemy?

Burnelli (front) designed conventional aircraft like the 1916 Continental Pusher before turning to lifting-fuselage airplanes with the RB-1. (NASM)
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“This is the biggest story in aviation history,” says Chalmers H. “Slick” Goodlin.  He puffs on his pipe and leans back in a 16th century oak chair in the living room of his sumptuous Coral Gables home.  A suit of medieval armor sits astride a life-size wooden horse over behind the couch, and banyan trees are visible outside the window.  Goodlin, a 66-year-old dealer in used jet airliners and a former test pilot from the glory days at Muroc, is talking about a subject that has consumed him—some would say obsessed him—for nearly four decades: the Burnelli lifting fuselage.  This 69-year-old concept of aircraft design is one that Goodlin insists would revolutionize aviation today.  “The government and the military-industrial complex have engaged in a diabolical conspiracy to kill the Burnelli concept,” he says.  “The cost of that conspiracy has been hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of human lives.  It’s one of mankind’s greatest tragedies of the 20th century.”

One day in 1920, a clever young aircraft designer from Texas named Vincent J. Burnelli had a brainstorm.  Seeking to increase lift for a larger version of the Lawson Airliner he’d designed the year before, Burnelli hit upon the idea of shaping the fuselage like an airfoil.  Instead of simply dragging through the air and unnecessarily burdening the wings, reasoned Burnelli, his fuselage would generate its fair share of lift.  Moreover, the lifting fuselage would reduce structural loads on the wing and provide the additional bonus of a cavernous cabin.

Burnelli’s first lifting-fuselage aircraft was the 32-passenger RB-1 biplane, which made its maiden flight in 1921.  It had a broad slab of a body, curved like an airfoil across the top and bottom and tapering to a knife edge at the rear.  The fuselage contributed more than 500 square feet of lifting surface, about a third of the total wing area, and was so wide that the two 550-horsepower Galloway Atlantic engines fit side by side in the nose.  An improved version, the RB-2, could carry three tones of freight, an astonishing load in those days, and in 1925 the prototype hauled around a Hudson Essex automobile on an aerial sales tour.  But the RB-2 was sluggish and slow, and Burnelli couldn’t get financing for production.

He continued to design and build airplanes based on his lifting-fuselage concept into the late 1940s, persuading various backers to fund six more prototype aircraft.  None ever went into production, even though Burnelli had the support of big names like Hap Arnold, Clyde Pangborn, and Billy Mitchell.  His unusual designs also caught the fancy of aviation buffs of the day, among them an airplane-crazy Pennsylvania boy named Chalmers Goodlin, who built a model of a Burnelli when he was 10 years old.

But the big contract remained elusive.  Until his death in 1964 Burnelli continued to sketch designs for aircraft ranging from commercial jet transports to suborbital space planes, all employing his lifting-fuselage concept.  The last Burnelli aircraft to fly was the CBY-3 Loadmaster, a squat, bulky twin-engine cargo transport that first took wing in 1947.  The only surviving Burnelli, it now sits, forlorn and partially disassembled, in the grass out behind the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Connecticut.

When Slick Goodlin met Vincent Burnelli in 1949, Goodlin too was feeling the sting of rejection by the aviation establishment.  Two years earlier, Goodlin, then a dashing 24-year-old test pilot for Bell Aircraft, had made the first powered flights of the Bell X-1, the bright orange rocket plane that would later break the sound barrier and make a national hero out of Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager.  Goodlin took the X-1 to the brink of Mach 1, but it was Yeager who stepped in for the epochal supersonic ride.

According to Yeager’s autobiography and the book The Right Stuff, Goodlin lost his shot as soon as he insisted on a $150,000 bonus to fly the X-1 past the sound barrier.  When the Air Force balked, Yeager took over for $283 a month, his regular service pay.

“That account is false,” says Goodlin vehemently, the bitterness still evident.  “I had a handshake deal with Bob Stanley of Bell that I would make the first supersonic flight before we turned the plane over to the Air Force.  He agreed I’d get $150,000 for the supersonic flights.  But the Air Force wanted a man in uniform to break the sound barrier—better PR.  And to make Yeager look like a hero, they made up the story about me refusing to fly.”

In 1949, Goodlin, who had left Bell to start a used-airliner business, was introduced to Burnelli by a mutual friend.  The two hit it off immediately.  Empathizing with Burnelli’s role as the frustrated outsider, Goodlin grew interested in the lifting-fuselage concept, test-flew the CBY-3, and got hooked.  “It was the best-flying airplane of the 10 different types I’ve flown,” he rhapsodizes.  “It stalled beautifully.  You could cut an engine, pull the stick back in your lap, and it would shudder a little and recover by itself.  Try that in a C-46 and you’re in big trouble.”

Goodlin became a stockholder in the Burnelli Company in 1950 and president in 1960.  “That about finished me as far as the establishment was concerned,” he says with registration.  For, as Goodlin sees it, it has been the aviation establishment that has worked to suppress Burnelli’s accomplishments.

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