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

“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.

Burnelli was dogged by bad luck.  One prototype crashed when the ground crew forgot to put in the aileron hinge bolts; another crashed when the ailerons were hooked up incorrectly to their controls.  A major backer went broke and a government loan was called in at just the wrong time.  Sales prospects for the postwar CBY-3 plummeted when the market was flooded with surplus DC-3s at $5,000 apiece.

Burnelli was clearly a talented designer, but he sometimes undermined his own cause.  Zealously guarding his lifting-fuselage concept, he patented every detail and always seemed to be involved in patent fights, making him appear a secretive, paranoid outsider to some.  Around 1930 the U.S. government tried to buy the rights to Burnelli’s patents so that other manufacturers could build Burnelli-style airplanes.  Burnelli refused.  On the advice of his patent attorney, he also stayed out of the Aviation Manufacturers Association, which had its own cross-licensing and patent-pooling system.  At one point Burnelli had a chance to merge with Consolidated, a big establishment manufacturer, but he backed off.

His dealings with the military were also fruitless.  Despite repeated rejections, Burnelli constantly bombarded the Army with design proposals that it called “unsubstantiated” and “based on faulty or misleading data.”  A 1948 Army chronology of its duels with Burnelli runs 30 pages.

Goodlin describes Burnelli as “too nice a man for the cut-throat aviation business.”  Short, shy, mild-mannered, Burnelli was far more comfortable at his drafting board than in the offices of Wall Street financiers or Army generals.  “Like so many inventors and technical geniuses, he was not a commercial man,” says Goodlin.  “He was an innocent.  He didn’t appreciate how dishonest big businesses could be.”

As Goodlin tells it, an event in 1940 perfectly sums up Burnelli’s lifelong bad luck and frustration.  His A-1 fighter-bomber design, after gaining the support of General Hap Arnold, won an Army Air Corps competition over Boeing, Douglas, and Lockheed designs.  An elated Burnelli, the story goes, was invited to the White House to watch President Franklin Roosevelt sign the production contract.  While an aide served champagne in the Oval Office, Roosevelt, pen in hand, casually asked Burnelli who his backer was.  When told it was Arthur Pew, the Sun Oil magnate, Roosevelt exploded with anger, threw the pen across the room, and ordered Burnelli out.  Pew, it seems, had been a big supporter of Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt’s Republican opponent that year.  Burnelli never got the contract.

Shortly thereafter, an Army review board issued a report that denigrated the Burnelli lifting-fuselage concept and stated that no Burnelli design proposal “would ever again be considered by the Air Corps.”  Burnelli continued to submit designs anyway, and finally, in 1948, the Air Force tested the CBY-3 at Wright Field.  It concluded that the Burnelli was comparable to the Douglas C-47 in handling and performance, but obsolete compared with newer designs then under development.  Burnelli, frustrated after so many years of rejection, never built another airplane.

Since Burnelli’s death, Goodlin has carried on the crusade alone—39 years of evangelistic fervor that have brought him little but rejection and scorn.  It cost him his first wife.  “She told me, ‘You love that airplane more than you love me.’  I told her, ‘You’re right, baby.’”  He subsequently married his secretary, who, after years of typing acid letters to Burnelli’s foes, presumably knew what she was getting into.

Goodlin targets Boeing as the kingpin in the anti-Burnelli conspiracy.  In 1963 he ran into a Boeing marketing executive in Florida and pitched the Burnelli concept.  The executive went home enthusiastic, says Goodlin, and promised to talk to his superiors.  But he called back and said Boeing wasn’t interested after all.  Twelve year later, Goodlin says he got a phone call from the president of Royal Jordanian Airlines.  “‘Hey, Slick,’ he told me, ‘I’m here in Seattle looking at a mockup of a Boeing Burnelli.  They’re telling me it’s the airplane of the future, and they’re trying to sell me a fleet of ‘em.’”

The mockup turned out to be the model 754 Husky, a freight hauler Boeing developed for a company headed by Ed Cole, former president of General Motors.  The Husky did indeed have a Burnelli-style airfoil-shaped fuselage.  (In fact, the Boeing patent filing on the 754 cites Burnelli’s earlier patents.)  A spec sheet on the 754 surreptitiously mailed to Goodlin by a Boeing engineer showed that, using the same engines as the 767, the 754 had double the 767’s payload.

Goodlin promptly fired off a letter to Boeing asking about royalties; Boeing attorneys sent back a series of increasingly testy letters.  The 754 project was eventually shelved—according to Goodlin, to save Boeing the embarrassment of admitting the superiority of the Burnelli concept and to avoid paying him royalties.  In a gesture of conciliation, Goodlin offered to drop the matter if Boeing would (a) take out a full-page ad in Business Week apologizing to him for stealing the Burnelli concept for the 754 design, and (b) donate $50 million to an air safety organization designated by Goodlin.

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.

But an airplane’s landing speed is essentially a market decision, one of the tradeoffs in aircraft design.  If Boeing had wanted the 747 to take off at 100 mph in 3,000 feet, it could have simply enlarged the wing and limited the weight.  But since the major cities of the world all have 10,000-foot runways and since there is no great public clamor for slower, safer landing speeds, Boeing saw no reason to pay the speed, payload, and cost penalties of a short-takeoff-and-landing 747, Burnelli or otherwise.

Goodlin may not win many converts to his aerodynamic theories, but he’s on much firmer ground when he criticizes the modern jetliner’s crashworthiness.  Goodlin says the Burnelli’s rigid box-like fuselage would protect passengers in a crash, pointing proudly to the 1935 crash of the UB-14.  The airplane hit the ground, wingtip down, at 130 mph and cartwheeled.  Engines, wings, and tail were ripped off, but the boxy fuselage remained intact and the crew walked away.  One vocal Burnelli proponent, Edmund J. Cantilli, professor of transportation planning and engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York, has decried the poor crashworthiness of the modern jetliner and proposed a Burnelli-style craft it its stead.

In 1986 Goodlin enlisted the aid of Florida senator Lawton Chiles, who persuaded the Air Force to invite Goodlin to Wright Field for a speech about the Burnelli concept.  Goodlin promptly demanded that the engineering vice presidents of Boeing, Douglas, Northrop, and Lockheed be in the audience.  These are the people who need to hear his message, he says.  “They care nothing for principle, ethics, or integrity.  They care nothing for the number of people unnecessarily killed.  They will even jockey us into war if it means preserving their power and greed.”

And so Goodlin continues to wage his holy war on all fronts.  Like most holy warriors, he seems to savor the call to battle more than the promise of victory.  “I hate to say this about Slick,” says one Burnelli supporter, shaking his head, “but darn it, I wish he’d simmer down a little.  He’d accomplish a lot more.”

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