Burnelli CBY-3, a unique aircraft – but conspiracy theories abound!
Tags: 'Book of Flight', 'Clyde Clipper', 'Flying Wing' cigarette card, 1921, 1938, 1945, aeronautical engineer, Air Transport Auxiliary, aircraft, Aviation, aviation dinosaur, Baltimore Airport, Cairo, Canadian Car & Foundry Company, CBY-3, center section, Central Africa, CF-BEL-X, cigarette cards, Connecticut, Cunliffe-Owen, engineer, England, FAFL, flying wing, Forces Aerienne Francais Libres, France, French, G-AFMB, Gallaher Ltd, General Charles de Gaulle, Gibraltar, Hawker, Hurricane, Irish, Jim Mollison, lifting body, Loadmaster, Malta, Museums, N17N, New England, New England Air Museum, OA-1, Pratt & Whitney, R-1830, radial engine, RAF, RB-1, Royal Air Force, Second World War, Smithsonian Institution, Southampton, tobacco, tobacco company, transport aircraft, Twin Wasp, UB-14, Vincent J Burnelli, Windsor Locks, wing structure, WW2
Imagine that you walked around a corner and suddenly were confronted - in aviation terms – by a dinosaur. That is what happened to me when I first visited the New England Air Museum. The story goes WAY back to when I was a boy in England. My brother had collected a series of ‘cigarette cards’, given away by the famous Irish tobacco company, Gallaher Ltd, in 1938. I was fascinated by the image on one of the cards, which showed a strangely shaped, twin-engined aircraft, labelled ‘Flying Wing’. Although I did not know it I was looking at the only British-built example of the work of the quite brilliant American engineer, Vincent J Burnelli. Burnelli had perfected a type of aircraft which had elements of lifting body, allied to a flying wing, in that there was a thickened center section, taking the place of a fuselage, which blended into the wing structure. This concept went through a series of prototypes, starting with the RB-1 biplane of 1921, and ending with the CBY-3 of 1946.
The OA-1 (or ‘Clyde Clipper’), G-AFMB, a license-built version of the American UB-14 transport aircraft, was produced by Cunliffe-Owen in their Southampton works, but was not a commercial success. The sole example was taken on charge by the RAF when war broke out, but was not assigned a service serial number. This is the point at which the story becomes the stuff of legend. An Air Transport Auxiliary crew of four, captained by no less a person than Jim Mollison, ferried the OA-1 to the FAFL (Forces Aérienne Français Libres) in Central Africa, via Gibraltar, Malta and Cairo. The use of the aircraft was obscure, but rumors about it being the personal aircraft of General Charles de Gaulle cannot be proved. It was scrapped in 1945.
Post-war, Burnelli took on more interested investors, and designed the extremely efficient CBY-3 Loadmaster (registered CF-BEL-X), which was built by the Canadian Car and Foundry Company, an organization that had built Hawker Hurricanes during the Second World War. It was powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp radial engines. Eventually it was sold in the USA, and registered N17N, but despite a series of regular flights between North and South America, the orders never flowed in and the aircraft ended its days at Baltimore Airport.
Here is where the story takes several strange twists. The estate of Vincent Burnelli offered the CBY-3 to the New England Air Museum, Windsor Locks, Connecticut, where they hoped that it would be restored and put on prominent display. Instead, a policy of benign neglect seemed to hold sway; the CBY-3 was always ‘next on the list’, despite being utterly unique in aviation terms. Many military aircraft have flowed into the museum, and yet these quite common machines seemed to take precedence over the Burnelli. Then there is the fact that the Smithsonian Institution makes absolutely no mention of Vincent J Burnelli in their ‘Book of Flight’ . It certainly seems that politics has entered the realm of aviation, once again.