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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Boeing opted not to comment for this article.  “We’re a little skittish on the whole subject of Burnelli,” a Boeing spokesman said.

Goodlin describes evasive treatment by other aerospace companies.  He cites as an example a Northrop engineer who wanted to submit a Burnelli design for a Naval design competition.  Management killed the deal, transferred the engineer, and told him never to talk to Goodlin again.  Goodlin says Northrop was edgy because the Stealth bomber has Burnelli characteristics.

A Northrop source confirms the outline of Goodlin’s tale but says, “Slick didn’t just shoot himself in the foot, he shot his whole foot off.  Things were going just fine until he wrote an aggressive legalistic letter to Tom Jones, the chairman.  The whole thing blew apart when it hit top management.  Slick shoots from the hip, and that prevents him from being taken seriously.”

“The whole aerospace industry is interconnected, and they’ll do anything to stop us,” says Goodlin.  “We have enough evidence for a criminal conspiracy.”  (He sued the Department of Defense in 1984 but has since withdrawn the suit.)  “Things haven’t changed since the 1920s.  They’re still a bunch of rotten bastards.”

Since there are no Burnelli airplanes in flying condition, it’s difficult to evaluate Goodlin’s claims of superior performance.  According to contemporary editions of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, performance of the early Burnelli CB-16 and UB-14 was comparable to similar aircraft of the day.  The most modern Burnelli, the CBY-3, though close in power and payload to the Douglas Super DC-3, was a good 40 mph slower.

On the other hand, Goodlin points out with glee that Boeing’s own spec sheet shows that the 754 Husky would have had greater payload capacity than the 767.  But the Husky had 31 percent more wing area and a higher aspect ratio—the ratio of span to average chord, a measure of the “skinniness” of the wing—than the 767, two factors that, entirely aside from its Burnelli-style fuselage, would give it a big weight-lifting advantage.  Moreover, the Husky would have cruised at just Mach 0.74, compared with the 767’s Mach 0.80.

According to standard aerodynamic theory, the “extra lift” provided by a Burnelli fuselage is, under most conditions, beside the point.  A Boeing 767 cruising at 41,000 feet doesn’t need extra lift from the fuselage.  Its wing easily provides all the lift necessary to balance its weight.  (In engineering terms, the aircraft cruises at well below the wing’s maximum lift coefficient.)  The designer’s task is to get that lift with the least drag.  It happens that a high-aspect-ratio wing (long and skinny) has inherently less induced drag than a low-aspect-ratio lifting surface (short and fat, like a Burnelli fuselage).  In cruising flight, the less the fuselage lifts, the lower the inducted drag.

Conventional wisdom also dictates that a Burnelli jetliner would suffer drag penalties because of its larger frontal area, larger wetted area (the area over which air flows), and the discontinuity between the lifting fuselage and the wings.  NASA aerodynamicist Jerry Hefner comments: “I would think the induced drag would be horrendous.  And your skin friction drag is going to go up because of the larger wetted area.”  An engineer from a major aerospace firm who asked to remain anonymous (to avoid angry letters from Goodlin) estimates the drag penalty of a Burnelli-style jet transport at about 20 percent more than that of an airplane like a 767.  That may be a reasonable compromise for a bulky cargo carrier like the Husky, but not for a passenger jet.

Slick Goodlin, of course, has never let conventional wisdom get in his way.  “Boeing and Douglas and all the rest of them are simply wrong,” he declares flatly.  “The aerodynamics textbooks have been misinterpreted for 50 years.”

Goodlin and established aeronautical theory do agree on one thing, however: the extra lift of a broad, flat, airfoil-shaped fuselage can theoretically reduce landing speed.  Goodlin correctly cites the takeoff and landing speeds of current jetliners—typically 140 to 180 mph—as potentially dangerous.  All of Burnelli’s airplanes, by contrast, had low landing speeds.

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