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Why Burnelli's Safe Design
Went Nowhere

Vincent Burnelli, a Texan who did some of his best work on Long Island, developed his "lifting-body" design in the 1920s and built a number of successful planes on this principle throughout the 1930s.

The unusual safety features of the design were testified to by a test pilot who, because of some faulty maintenance work, crashed one of Burnelli's planes, a UB-14, into the ground in New Jersey at about 135 MPH on Jan. 13, 1935.

The pilot, Lou Reichers, reported that he flew the ship into the ground from about 200-foot altitude . . . the right wing being nearly vertical and absorbing the first shock. This impact caused the airplane to cartwheel . . . The body remained intact, and no fuel leaked from the wing tanks . . . The box-body strength of this type . . . saved myself and the engineer crew, and had the cabin been fully occupied with passengers with safety belts properly attached, no passengers would have been injured. This crash landing . . . is an extraordinary example of the crash safety that can be provided by the lifting body type of design."

The basic idea behind Burnelli's lifting-body theory is that the fuselage can contribute at least 50 per cent of the airplane's lift if it is shaped like an airfoil, providing all kinds of advantages over conventional airplanes, particularly with regard to safety and performance.

Burnelli designed and built his first plane, an open biplane, with a friend, John Carisi, in a shack in Maspeth (New York City) in 1915.

In 1920, Burnelli formed the Airliner Engineering Corp. in Amityville and built the RB-1, a biplane with a 74-foot wingspan and a wide airfoil-shaped body providing 504 square feet of lifting area.

In subsequent years, Burnelli built another biplane and a series of monoplanes, culminating in the UB-14B, which was used during World War II to carry freight in South America.

In 1941, however, after Burnelli had won three government competitions to build Air Corps planes, President Roosevelt reportedly changed his mind about authorizing a go-ahead for the Burnelli planes when he found out that the project was being backed by Joseph Newton Pew, the chairman of the Sun Oil Co., who had helped finance the political campaign of one of Roosevelt's rivals, Wendell Willkie.

"In my opinion it is essential, in the interest of national defense, that this procurement be authorized."
- General H. H. (Hap) Arnold
In a fit of pique, Roosevelt threw a pen across the room and said that he would have nothing to do with the project. Subsequently, Roosevelt told the Air Corps to eliminate that category of aircraft from its procurement plans. The War Department labeled Burnelli's designs "inefficient," stamped them "Top Secret" and buried them in its files, where they remain to this day. Burnelli died in Southampton (Long Island, New York) in 1964.
Many knowledgeable people have testified to the qualities of the Burnelli airplane design, including Gen. H. H. (Hap) Arnold, who, in 1940, told Secretary of War Henry Stimson: "In my opinion it is essential, in the interest of national defense, that this procurement be authorized."

By 1943, however, Arnold, disturbed by the continued suppression of Burnelli's designs, assigned Col. Harold Hartney to review the history of the design, so that it could be placed on the record in case Arnold were ever accused of not having adopted the obviously superior design.

The Hartney report, which had supporting testimony from the best American minds in aeronautical science, was highly complimentary of the Burnelli design.

Hartney gave great importance to the outstanding safety and economic features of the Burnelli design and warned of increasing numbers of fatalities in the future of American aviation because of higher and higher takeoff and landing speeds required of conventional planes.

The prospect of such disasters was "most distressing," Hartney concluded, "which few seem to appreciate."

--Edmund J. Cantilli


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