ON FEBRUARY 16th 1998, an Airbus A300-600R operated by China Airlines came in to land at Taiwan's Chiang Kai-shek International Airport in heavy fog. The altitude of the approach was dangerously high. Air traffic control instructed the pilot to abort his landing, go around and try again. The aeroplane rose far too steeply, at an angle of 42 degrees, stalled, and fell. It hit the ground 200 feet to the left of the runway, at a speed of 234 miles per hour, ploughed across the central reservation of the adjacent highway and skidded into a built-up area, where it smashed through homes and factories, then exploded into a vast fireball. Only the tail remained identifiable as part of an airliner. All 196 passengers and crew were pulverised or immolated. Seven victims on the ground brought the death toll to 203.
On January 13 1935, a Burnelli UB-14 setting out on a demonstration flight, and watched by public, press, sundry celebrities and the aeroplane's designer, Vincent Justus Burnelli, crashed at Newark Airport, New Jersey. The aerilons, which permit an aeroplane to bank and turn, dropped off the wings. At an altitude of 200 feet and a speed of 195 miles per hour, the four-ton plane plunged to earth. It landed on its right wing-tip and cartwheeled with such force that it gouged a deep trench in the frozen ground, while one of the two engines ripped from the nose of the craft came to rest 600 feet away. The empty passenger cabin remained intact, its seats fixed in position. There was no fire. The crew walked out of the wreckage and lit up cigarettes.
What do these two accidents, separated by 63 years, have in common? Very little, on the face of it. One craft was a large commercial jet, the other a 16-passenger propeller plane, diminutive by today's standards. One incident ended in tragedy, the other in a miraculous escape. One factor alone unites them. They were caused by human error. In Taiwan, the captain mistakenly believed his craft to be on autopilot; for eleven crucial seconds, no-one and nothing was in control. In Newark, the plane's mechanics had failed to tighten a crucial set of bolts. Each, once the error occurred, was in the hands of fate.
Chalmers H Goodlin would fundamentally disagree. Goodlin is a former test pilot, a lifelong aviation professional and the current chief executive of the Burnelli Company. He would argue that, if one accepts the inevitability of human error, the issue becomes not whether an aircraft will crash, but will happen when it does. At this point, the cause of the crash - a confused pilot, a negligent mechanic, a structural or systems failure - becomes irrelevent. Goodlin believes that the UB-14 crew survived by design - Burnelli's design. And that the travellers aboard the China Airlines Airbus died by design - the design of their aeroplane, and of every passenger aeroplane in use today.
In 1939, the chief of the US Army Air Corps, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, was so impressed with the UB-14's potential that he reported to the Secretary of War: “The basic principle of the lifting fuselage as developed by V. J. Burnelli has distinct advantages over the ‘streamlined fuselage’. From wind tunnel tests already conducted by the NACA [National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, forerunner of NASA] and NYU [New York University] the performance is exceptionally good in every phase. The design embodies extremely good factors of safety - considerably higher than the streamlined fuselage type. In my opinion,” he concluded, “it is essential, in the interest of the national defense, that this procurement be authorized.”
Dr. Edmund Cantilli, the retired Professor of Transportation Safety & Engineering at New York Polytechnic, believes that Burnelli's design is as valuable today as it was in 1939. “Aircraft manufacturers have concentrated on airworthiness,” Cantilli says, “and ignored crashworthiness. Far too many people die in plane crashes because they have not been given a reasonable chance of surviving. The use of Burnelli airliners,” he asserts, “would reduce air crash fatalities by 85 per cent.”
This is an astonishing figure. Instinctively, one feels it cannot be correct. If it were, we would all be flying in these amazing aircraft. And we aren't.
But if we skirt this cart-before-horse reasoning, we could instead ask the question, “Why not? Why aren't Burnelli aircraft the universal standard?” And in answering it, there is an extraordinary saga to be uncovered. The tale of Burnelli ranges from the earliest fairground stunt pilots to NASA and the Pentagon. It takes in allegations of subterfuge, corruption and malice reaching the highest level of American politics.
Most tales of suppressed technology can be easily dismissed, involving as they do such giddy hallucinations as nuclear fusion, or an engine which runs for 17 hours on half a can of Fanta. In this case, the technology is demonstrably real, and its history is backed up by a remarkable body of evidence. Goodlin calls the stifling of Burnelli, “The biggest story in the history of aviation, and the greatest scientific fraud of the twentieth century.” That's quite a claim. But then, it's quite a story.
VINCENT Burnelli was 24 years old when he created one the world's earliest airliners, the Lawson C-2. It was 1919. He devised this 26-passenger beast in the employ of entrepreneur Alfred W Lawson. In any milieu other than the nascent aircraft industry, Lawson - a onetime baseball player who funded his operation by selling stock to war widows and orphans - would have been a maverick. But sixteen years after the Wright Brothers' debut flight at Kitty Hawk, the aeroplane business was a swashbuckling free-for all, populated by types who tended to be a combination of huckster, visionary and barnstormer. Like the modern, cyber-illiterate opportunists who waded full-tilt into the internet market, they were more concerned with the main chance than with the technology behind it. The cultured and mild-mannered Burnelli, dedicated to his craft, was already a man out of place.
A native of Temple, Texas, the son of an Italian father and a Canadian mother, Burnelli was a devotee of aviation. At 15, he was a champion model airplane builder and hang-glider. He independently built and flew his first plane at 21, with his friend John Carisi, and had already spent three years as chief engineer of the Continental Aircraft Company when he was retained by Lawson for the C-2 project.
Lawson hired World War I RAF ace Charlie Cox to fly the C-2, only for Burnelli to discover, halfway through the inaugural itinerary, that their pilot was a different Charlie Cox, a ballroom dancer with a total of eight hours experience in the air. Despite this, and a crash-landing smack in front of the nation's news cameras, the airliner went on to become a commercial success, a trailblazer in passenger air travel. Burnelli, however, referred to it as “a streetcar with wings”. He knew what he was talking about, having modelled the cabin on a tram. It was remarkable that he got the thing to fly at all.
He swiftly came up with a new idea; a masterstroke which would dictate the form of every aircraft he designed thereafter. This was the “lifting body”, a fuselage in an airfoil shape, like a wing, wide and rectangular in frontal cross-section. His first attempts, the RB-1 (1921) and RB-2 (1924) biplanes, were serviceable but unwieldy. In 1927, he got it right with the CB-16 monoplane, a luxurious twin-engine executive airliner. It was the first multi-engine plane capable of flying on just one motor. Burnelli also pioneered such commonplaces as retractable landing gear, wing flaps and flat metal “stressed-skin” construction in place of heavy, unaerodynamic corrugated metal. There the resemblance to modern commercial aeroplanes ends. Burnelli's planes looked like nothing on today's civil airfields; they were flat and broad, and tended to have a double tail mounted on a twin boom at the rear, like that of a catamaran.
They were also profoundly different, Dr Edmund Cantilli believes, in terms of safety - and remain so. He cites the flaws of the familiar “streamlined fuselage” aeroplane - a cylinder with wings - in which we all travel, and which has changed only in minor details over the last few decades. In event of a serious accident - most of which occur near take off or landing - the cabin almost invariably breaks up and the seats come adrift, strewing their human cargo like chaff. Because engines and landing gear are usually mounted beneath the wings, where the fuel is stored, a rupture in the tanks will pour this fuel onto the engines and the overheated tyres, ensuring that explosive fire claims the few potential survivors.
Cantilli claims three major safety advantages for the Burnelli design. They have greater lift, meaning that they can remain airborne at lower speeds than conventional aircraft. This allows them to take off and land relatively slowly, putting less pressure on the tyres and minimizing any crash impact. Thanks to its shape and construction, the fuselage is more robust, tending to stay in one piece on crash impact. The seats are directly attached to the main structure of the craft, and more likely to stay put. The engines are mounted at the front of the broad fuselage and the landing gear underneath it, away from the fuel in the wings, making fire much less probable.
Burnelli's advances were hugely acclaimed at the time. “In the thirties,” says Chalmers Goodlin, “when I was a teenager, Burnelli was the biggest name in aviation magazines and even in the newspapers. His aeroplanes were acclaimed by universities. So it was rather amazing. When the war came along, why, bang! It was as if he was dead. The military didn't buy any of his aeroplanes.”
As war loomed, Burnelli had seemed to be unstoppable. He had the right idea at the right time. Come 1941, he found himself sitting in the White House at the invitation of President Franklin D Roosevelt. By Burnelli's own account, Roosevelt told him: “Burnelli, we understand you have the best aeroplane of the lot, and we're going to build a lot of them. So I guess you're going to need some money.” Burnelli courteously replied that this wouldn't be necessary: “Mr. Arthur Pew of the Sun Oil Company is prepared to put up whatever we need.”
Clearly, Burnelli's technical gifts were inversely proportional to his political nous. Arthur Pew was the backer not only of Burnelli, but of Wendell Wilkie, Roosevelt's Republican opponent in the previous year's bitter presidential election. Roosevelt threw his pen across the room and Burnelli out of the White House.
Within weeks, a new Army Air Corps report had been prepared, in complete contradiction to General Arnold's. It rubbished Burnelli and resolved, with startling and didactic finality, that, “This design is of no interest to the Air Corps and that for this reason, no further correspondence, consultations, or reviewing of data embodying this design will ever again be considered by the Air Corps or the Materiel Division.”
Whether or not this was done at Roosevelt's behest goes to the heart of the matter. And certainly, it is hard to see it as a coincidence that the widely feted Burnelli should so abruptly be execrated and shunned. For Vincent Burnelli and his company, the report triggered a frustrating and irreversible decline, and a struggle which would end neither with Roosevelt's death in 1944, nor with Burnelli's twenty years after. The campaign, now more of a guerilla war, has continued to this day, thanks only to Chalmers Goodlin.
CHALMERS H Goodlin is 78 years old, and few of those 78 years have been uneventful. His house in Miami is testimony to it. From the outside, it looks like a blandly Hispanic stucco bungalow typical of the genteel Coral Gables neighbourhood. Indoors, it could be a baronial hall transplanted in its entirety from the shires. Huge beams of authentic English oak buttress rooms crammed with suits of plate armour, one of which straddles a hollow, iron-clad horse. A stag's head stares down glassily from the lintel. Hanging from the dining room wall is an original Tintoretto. Flying memorabilia are everywhere: photographs, models, certificates, testimonials. It is the home of an Anglophile aviator and adventurer, who still wears the W-shaped moustache cultivated by The Few and visible in a dozen dashing snapshots of the test pilot and aircraft trader in his younger days.
As a teenage farmboy, Goodlin took to dallying at the grass airfield of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, cadging rides and then taking flying lessons. “Flying was a ramshackle business. I was drawn to it by all the strange characters who used to hang around there.” Inspired by the Battle Of Britain, Goodlin headed north at 18 to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Posted to England, and repeatedly thwarted in his desire to fly combat, he found himself training Spitfire pilots in Shropshire, alongside a compatriot by the marvellous name of Bob Constant.
After America entered the Second World War, frustration took the pair to the US Navy. As Goodlin recalls it, in a New World drawl salted with old-fangled phrasings, “They promised us we'd go to the Pacific on land based Corsair squadrons. But instead, why, they put us in a school in Jacksonville with doctors and lawyers to learn naval history and how to wave flags and that sort of thing. So we were rather teed off about that.”
Bob Constant had a sister, and Bob Constant's sister had an influential job: executive secretary to the US Chief of Staff, General George C Marshall. The most senior soldier in the land was not above a little inter-service snobbery. “She told him about how unhappy we were in the navy. And he said, ‘Well, I can understand that. It's not a very nice military organization. They've got testing experience, let's see if we can't arrange for them to go work for one of the aeroplane companies.’ So we resigned from the navy and went to work for Bell.”
Thus, in 1946, “Slick” Goodlin became the first pilot to make rocket-powered flights in the legendary Bell X-1, the plane which broke the sound barrier. “I flew it 26 times. I did have a couple of high-risk situations where there was a fire in the ass-end, and all I could do was hope that I could get on the ground before anything started coming apart. But it was like nothing I had flown before. Amazing acceleration. It felt like I was hit in the back with a big shovel.”
Goodlin had a handshake deal on his fee for this hazardous task. “I think the Air Force said, well, this is ridiculous, here's a civilian test pilot
|| getting all of this publicity - and what's worse he's ex-Navy. This should be done by a US Air Force pilot. And Bell simply lacked the integrity to do right by me. They tried to get off without paying me what they were supposed to pay. Bob Stanley, the VP of engineering, said ‘Don't you want to fly the X-2?’ I said, ‘Bob, if your word's no good on the X-1, it's no good on the X-2.’ Goodlin quit, and the Air Force's Chuck Yeager went on to pilot the X-1 through the sound barrier and into history.|
Goodlin spent the next few years as a jobbing pilot, although the jobs were hardly mundane. A spell as Chief Test Pilot for the Israeli Air Force finally saw him in combat during that nation's war of independence. Next, he worked for a carrier set up to airlift Jewish refugees from Germany and Aden to Israel. He would fly any aeroplane anywhere, which was how, in 1949, he came to be “deadheading in New York for a couple of days. One of the pilots said, ‘Let's go down and see Vince Burnelli, he's got an office here on Fifth Avenue.’ Now, I had never met him before, but of course I was extremely interested in why his aeroplanes hadn't been built.
“So I met him and he was a charming guy. He said, ‘I'd like you to fly my last aeroplane, if you would, and give me your opinion on it.’” This was the CBY-3, also known - with justification - as the “Loadmaster”. It was the first Burnelli to make it off the drawing board since the late thirties, when British aircraft company Cunliffe-Owen had licensed their own version of the UB-14, the Clyde Clipper. Used by General de Gaulle as his personal transport throughout World War II, the Clipper is now remembered, if at all, as an aviation oddity to rank with Howard Hughes's ill-fated wooden behemoth, the Spruce Goose.
Backed by the Canadian Car & Foundry Company, Burnelli designed the Loadmaster as a workhorse rival to the highly-regarded DC-3, or Dakota. It offered more square feet of floor space, and greater load capacity per unit of horsepower, than anything in its class. “I was stunned,” says Goodlin, “by the superior flight characteristics of it. Load carrying, slow take-off and landing speed. I was just astonished that this technology hadn't been used during the war. I got intrigued by it, and I bought some shares in the company.”
The CBY-3 turned out to be Vincent Burnelli's last throw of the dice, and he lost. For all its qualities, it could not compete on price with the glut of cheap ex-military aircraft released onto the market after the war. Goodlin himself would discover this when in 1950 he accepted Winston Churchill's old Dakota from a British airline company in lieu of payment for his work as an operations manager. He sold it on, and made a tidy profit. “I thought, gosh, this is nice business. So I went back to England and got two more. I just kept buying aeroplanes.”
Throughout the fifties, as Goodlin's aircraft trading business grew, so the Burnelli company dwindled. It now consisted of little more than Burnelli himself - funded by Goodlin, designing ever-more ambitious aeroplanes he could not find backers to build - and a clutch of respected but helpless supporters. Burnelli, as we have seen, was neither a savvy businessman nor a political animal. Eventually, he sought assistance from a more vigorous quarter. “By 1960,” says Goodlin, “why, Vince asked me to become president of the company, and see if I couldn't straighten out the mess in Washington.
“The first thing I found out was that the Pentagon was sending out these letters to anyone who asked, quoting a 1941 report as the reason why they weren't interested in Burnelli.” Remarkably, nobody at Burnelli had ever read the full report itself. “I asked for a copy from the Pentagon and they said it was classified - after twenty years! Dan Flood, my congressman, demanded and obtained a copy from the Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara.”
The report bore the signature of one General Bennett E Meyers, whose Air Force career had since come to an ignominious end when he was jailed for funnelling procurement money to his own companies. But even with Meyers long gone, the report still stood. “It was the most atrocious document,” seethes Goodlin, “that I have ever seen. It was unbelievable that such a document could be issued by a government agency. It was obviously fraudulent.”
The Burnelli cause cannot have been helped when its own champion in Congress, Dan Flood, was convicted of soliciting bribes. Goodlin views this as a “sting operation' brought about to curb Flood's efforts on his behalf. One Pennsylvania newspaper would memorialise Flood as “a thief of such extravagance that he took to wearing a cape in his later years,” so perhaps we should be cautious in attributing his disgrace to such sinister motives.
But, by the time Vincent Burnelli died in 1964, Goodlin had understandably begun to see sinister motives everywhere. He had come to believe that the “military-industrial complex”, or “MIC” for short, was conspiring to keep down the Burnelli design. In his correspondence with any relevant agency or organization, Goodlin found himself referred back to the 1941 report again and again. In 1959, the Securities and Exchange Commission cited the report in a stop order issued against the company, preventing its shares from being traded. Goodlin managed to keep the Burnelli Company solvent by bankrolling it himself, subsidising it with the proceeds of his flourishing business in what he considered to be inferior aircraft. At the end of the sixties, the company existed only on paper, its sole assets the designs and patents which Burnelli had left behind.
“We had four ex-commanding generals from Wright Field [then the official air corps test site] join Burnelli as directors after the war,” Goodlin says. “But even with that kind of horsepower, the Burnelli Company couldn't break through. And in 1960, when Jean Roche, who was chief of airplane design for the US air corps for 43 years, retired and came on board, we still couldn't get anywhere.
“These silly bastards who commissioned that report had made a political decision on a technical matter. They figured, well, with all of the money that we have for research and development, we can come up with something that will supersede the Burnelli technology. But they never did. They spent billions and billions on research and development. But they could never match the Burnelli principle.”
IN 1970, a friend in the Pentagon got in touch with Goodlin. “He told me, ‘The Burnelli matter is called the H-bomb here. Nobody wants to be around when it goes off.’” Nobody, that is, except Goodlin himself. But his livelihood was calling him elsewhere. “I was spending half my time in England. I used London as a jumping off place for doing business in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and India.” Burnelli or no, a move to London seemed only practical. Goodlin bought an L shaped property in Chelsea; a house on Cheyne Walk, tied into a cottage and carriage yard on adjacent Cheyne Row. His next door neighbour on Cheyne Walk was Mick Jagger. “He would come through my place when he was trying to avoid the press, and I would let him out on Cheyne Row.”
It was In London he met his second and current wife, Aila, a Finn who had moved there to work in fashion: “He had just come back from a wedding - the Duke of Marlborough or someone like that - and I was introduced to him. He was so handsome, so dynamic, I thought, oh my, this is God's gift to women. No, we have no children. Burnelli,” she adds, revealingly, “is our baby.”
Goodlin tried to keep an eye on their baby from London, but it proved difficult. For over a decade, it seemed ever more probable that the Burnelli Company would never see a revival. Come 1983, his Pentagon contact had some more advice: “He said, ‘Listen, if you don't come back and fight this battle here, you're never going to win it.’ Being of Pennsylvania Deutsch stock and very stubborn, I decided I would do that. But I haven't won it yet.”
A pattern was beginning to emerge. One aircraft company after another would seemingly embrace the Burnelli principle, enthuse about its potential, then suddenly cool on the notion. In 1974, for example, Boeing revealed plans for an air-freighter called the 754, which to the layman's eye is uncannily similar to a Burnelli. Goodlin thought so too, and sent Boeing a letter to the effect that he would be glad to negotiate a licence agreement. Shortly afterwards, Boeing cancelled the project.
In 1983 a promising liaison with Deutsche Airbus ended with the company turning down the Burnelli design. According to Goodlin, Dr Franz Joseph Strauss, then company president and formerly prime minister of Bavaria, announced, “It's all politics. The Burnelli Company has an American problem and it must be resolved in the United States.”
It began to look as if that might happen a year later, when, says Goodlin, “George Bush Sr took the correction of the Burnelli problem on as a vice-presidential project.” Bush's White House counsel, Boyden Gray, took charge of the matter, and set up talks between the Burnelli Company and the navy, which came to nothing.
Then Goodlin got a call from a Briton of his acquaintance called Brian G Wilson, a senior research engineer at Northrop, builder of the B-2 stealth bomber. Wilson was interested in the possibility of incorporating Burnelli's designs into a new navy aircraft project. But when Goodlin sent a letter to the Chief Executive of Northrop, asking for written confirmation, “I got a letter back from their legal department, saying they were a designer of their own airplanes and they weren't interested in taking a licence from Burnelli.”
Goodlin views these incidents as successive evidence of high-level conspiracy. He is convinced that on each occasion, when those at the top of the MIC got wind of developments, they acted to crush any hope of Burnelli getting a look-in. Wilson, who now teaches at the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department of the University of Southampton, has a different - and illuminating - view of the affair.
“Chalmers is a feisty son of a gun,” says Wilson, accurately. “One of the problems is that he's always thought the government were out to screw him, because that's the story of his life, and of course, Vincent Burnelli's life. Chalmers has taken the role of the hurt suitor all the way down the road, and I think he's done himself in that way.
“The Burnelli people think that's the only way you can design an aeroplane. It's one way, but not the only way. My view is we needed to have an analysis done so we could look at the merits of it. Instead of letting me go ahead, Chalmers suddenly fires off a letter to the chairman, Tom Jones, and starts making demands. There's a history here, a pattern. He's written letters like that to Boeing and everybody else. Most aircraft manufacturers will say, ‘If that's the case, you can keep it.’
“I was called in to explain myself to the company lawyers, who said, ‘Look, this guy is obviously a kook. You're to back off, you're not to use his stuff, and while you're employed at Northrop, you're not to have any more communication with him.’ It was all open and above board within the Northrop hierarchy. That ended a very nice, long relationship that I had with Chalmers on designing aeroplanes. One magazine article about it said that he didn't just shoot himself in the foot, he shot it off.”
In other words, it is perfectly possible that, against all natural justice, the future of the Burnelli design and the interests of the Burnelli Company have become separated and, eventually, opposed. And it is equally possible that in attempting to champion both, Goodlin has benefited neither.
Goodlin professes that a number of aircraft have used the Burnelli principle without acknowledgement. He cites the Grumman F-15 fighter from 1972 - which is indeed notably similar to Burnelli's own 1947 fighter design - and points out that Boeing's projected “Blended Wing Body' super plane for up to 800 passengers looks much like Burnelli's 1951 transporter. As for the B-2, it may resemble a lifting body, but Wilson insists it is based on a different principle known as the “flying wing.”
Goodlin has also conducted a long-running spat with NASA over the provenance of their next space shuttle, the X-33. NASA does not deny this is a lifting body craft, but credits the idea to research done in 1951 by their own men, Harvey Allen and Alfred Eggers. There does seem to be a logical incongruity between the still unretracted 1941 report dismissing the lifting body as worthless, and NASA's position that the lifting body has merit, but is not Burnelli's work.
It seems grossly unfair, but inevitable, that Goodlin should have to tolerate the violation of Burnelli's patents in order to further the cause of Burnelli's invention. The notion may well be inconceivable to Goodlin, a veteran of aviation's Wild West days, a risk-taker and buccaneer with a keenly honed sense of honour. That may be why the only explanation he can accept is one of wicked machinations over a sixty-year period.
The phrase “military-industrial complex” is Dwight Eisenhower's. He warned against its influence in his 1960 presidential farewell speech. It has since become the touchstone of conspiracy theorists, who attribute any and every event they can think of to its malign influence.
Could Burnelli have been deliberately suffocated by the American state for all these years? Conceivably. But how much more likely it is that a single, illicit act of Oval Office spite set off a chain of escalating action and reaction, which served to bury Burnelli more effectively than any dark plot. That - as Brian Wilson suggests - Goodlin possesses a legitimate but self-fulfilling sense of grievance. That with each avowal of outrage and recrimination he has been branded ever more of a crank. A broken record, easily ignored.
Whatever one concludes about Chalmers Goodlin and his worldview, none of it alters the potential value of Burnelli's design. “The Burnelli shape should be looked at,” maintains Brian Wilson. “Because it survived a crash in the 1930s, it's extrapolated that this configuration is inherently safer. That's an arguable point. But we haven't done enough work in the industry to find out.” In Dr Edmund Cantilli's opinion, had the lessons of that 1935 Burnelli crash been heeded, “The course and image of commercial aviation would have been altered considerably, especially in terms of the thousands of lives not lost.”
“One day,” said Vincent Burnelli in 1950, “they will see that I am right.” This, of course, is the mantra of the deluded and obsessed down the ages. But it is also the credo of those who happen to be right.