Burnelli CBY-3, a unique aircraft – but conspiracy theories abound!


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.

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15 comments on “Burnelli CBY-3, a unique aircraft – but conspiracy theories abound!”

  1. Incredibly fascinating — thanks! I was entirely unaware of Vincent J Burnelli and his work — he was ahead of his time.

    Perhaps the aircraft is not sexy enough to draw volunteers or the public in the museum’s estimation and it’s unfortunate he hasn’t been mentioned in the tome you refered.

    Is the photo taken at the NE Air Musuem, by any chance?

    I foung a link showing Burnelli’s work: http://www.aircrash.org/burnelli/chrono1.htm

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    • Thanks so much for the information, Joe! Burnelli was a real genius. The UB-14 weighed 4,500lbs, yet could LIFT 5,500lbs of cargo! The photograph was taken at NE Museum (I have a whole series from their collection) Cheers!

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      • Thanks again for pointing out this man’s existence and contributions to me — I had been entirely unaware. I will look into his designs.

        It could lift more than its own mass! The question then becomes “Why did the design not become successful back in the day?”

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      • Ahh! Politics, politics? Hap Arnold wanted THIRTY of the UB-14s for the AAC (and this was in the cash-strapped 30s). Roosevelt was JUST on the point of signing off on the order, when Burnelli happened to mentioned that his main financial backer was a hard-core Republican – no order! I find I have to limit my blog entries, or we would end with a BOOK, each time (and I would be accused of boring people to death!)

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  2. Yes, Burnelli was waaaay ahead of his time. Check out his last piece of work at http://www.burnelli.com/Welcome.html . Google, Images x-43B and compare. The similarity is striking. The few detractors that I’ve found over the years have always sited “parasitic or induced drag” as the reason the Burnelli design was a failure. (Read http://www.meridian-int-res.com/Aeronautics/Burnelli.htm ) If this were so, why did every model Burnelli built out perform every conventional model of its day, twice the load over the same distance using the same amount of fuel? You also can’t go hypersonic (X-43 and X-51) without the proper design. Each of these NASA X designs had lifting fuselages with flat or slab sides for a reason. The nay-sayers are few and far between and tout their extensive understanding of aerodynamics. Ignore these people. Sorry to say for them that none of them have ever tested a Burnelli design nor apparently read any of the test reports that were done when Burnelli was vying for and winning three military bomber competitions prior to WWII. Read Boeing’s own report on a Burnelli cargo design from the 1970′s at the aircrash.org site. Reportedly, they wouldn’t pay a 1% filing fee to use the still patented design and dropped the project. Read Rick Wood’s AIAA report about Burnelli at http://www.meridian-int-res.com/Aeronautics/Burnelli_AIAA.pdf (Sr. Aeronautical Engineer/Langley). Go to Burnelli.com and lend them your support. Tell your friends to join the movement to revive Burnelli’s safer, smarter, quieter, more fuel efficient design. I’m workin’ on it. You can too. It could happen and you can help. (See the only known, flying 1964 Burnelli RC airliner here http://www.aviationpeopletalk.net/ ) Hope this wasn’t too boring.

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  3. I lost out on a scratchbuilt model on ebay, would like to find plans to build a 1/72 or 1/48 one.

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    • I am sorry that you missed out on the scratch-built model on EBay. Perhaps THIS website can help you; it is a source for all things Burnelli ! Cheers

      http://www.burnelli.com/wp/

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      • Thanks. I saw this site, has some good photos. Never noticed the crash video of the UB-40 till now, quite impressed. After looking at the CBY-3 photos. The model on ebay, although registered correctly, had the wrong nose and the center section was a bit to narrow. So I’m glad I didn’t win it. I’ll put that money into making my own. Just for fun, I emailed the NEAM yesterday and asked if they had three view drawings etc. for making a model and asked if they are going to restore it soon, just to see what response I get. I’ll let you know if I hear from them. I also found a couple of electric R/Cs being made and one guy makes all his r/c planes fron aluminum and he’s currently building the CBY-3.

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  4. Here’s a page with a three view of the CBY-3. At the bottom of the page there’s a 30 second walk around of the UB-14 a friend created a few years back. It was reported that one of the renditions was red. http://www.rcgroups.com/forums/showthread.php?t=1570366

    I also got a personal, hopeful message from NEAM on December 5th last year about the CBY-3 restoration. “Upon completion of the multi-year restoration of our Douglas A-26 Invader, anticipated for mid-2012, the Burnelli CBY will be moved into our restoration facility for its restoration.” Michael P. Speciale, New England Air Museum, (860) 623-3305 ext. 312

    Yes, they’ve been saying it’s next for a long time but the message seemed sincere and he emailed me back when I asked the time schedule for restoration. His reply…, “Although it will most likely take several years, it will be the one and only major restoration project for the duration.” I think someone there finally realized what a jewel of aviation history they have in their possession.

    Here’s me and my 30″ Burnelli, Jet Airliner RC, built in 2008 and had its maiden flight on Dec 20 of that year. http://www.burnelli.com/wp/blog It flew very well. I’m working on a 4′ model of a newer aerodynamic design. Hopefully, it will be done by December of this year. I’m workin’ on it.

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    • Thank you SO much for the good news. Since I live about 2 hours north of N.E.A.M., I shall keep a close eye on things!

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  5. [...] Burnelli’s latest design, the CBY-3 is the subject of a Ross Sharp post from the Shortfinals’s Blog,  Burnelli CBY-3, a unique aircraft but conspiracy theories abound! [...]

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  6. I have been waiting for a forum that deals a Burnelli type aircraft. I’ve worked on a plan, witch is more Burnelli than any thing else. I would like some basic info about how and why things work. If anyone out there can help please do so.

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  7. Just want everyone to know that the Burnelli site link has changed. It’s now… http://www.burnelliaircraft.com/
    Ray, the picture on the opening page is what I’ve based my work on. The basic dimensions on my first, static model are these: Body, 12″ X 30″, use any airfoil design that would work for a jet airliner; Main Wing, 13″ wide, each, the leading edge at the body is 16″ from the trailing edge of the body; Canard, 7″ wide, each, the leading edge at the body is 5″; Vertical Stablizers, 7″ high and 5 1/2″ at the base. Use the same airfoil design for all wings too.
    My first RC was based on these numbers. Since I knew pratically nothing, as might be your case, I used the F-27 Stryker RTF for the main wing. Since its wing diameter was 38″ I built the airfoil body and canard to the above specs and fitted it onto the F-27. The 4 foot model I’m working on now is all from scratch using the same dimensions X 1.6.
    Hope this give you encouragement to start or continue your plan. You can see some early work on my 4′ model (which I was side tracted from for a year) here… http://www.rcgroups.com/forums/attachment.php?attachmentid=4279761 Good luck.

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