Inside the mind of an airline pilot

When keeping your head is no flight of fancy

The Christmas aeroplane: Visionary breakthrough or fraud?

DOCTOR Christmas was a trickster. Chronicles tell us that perhaps he was not even a real doctor. However, like most swindlers, his words carried the power of conviction and in the early years of aviation he managed to persuade a few investors to back him up on a project to build the safest, sleekest and fastest aircraft, writes international airline pilot Miguel Cuenca.

As the story goes, the physician was fascinated by the newborn world of aviation. Following a revelation, his love for birdwatching took his career to a different path away from medical practice – and into airplane design.

After countless hours studying bird feeding habits, the doctor observed that the amount of food consumed by the animals could not possibly generate all the energy required to propel them through the air. Therefore, under such dietary deficit, sustained flight could not be possible unless some other form of lifting force was present.

Determined to prove his point, he put ‘light cement’ on the birds’ backs making their flapping efforts to regain flight futile. According to this empirical demonstration, the flickering of the feathers was enough evidence to prove that the extra buoyancy came from the wing’s flexibility. Further research on its value allowed the construction of an extremely thin and flat airfoil design able to replicate the bird’s natural upwards and downwards wing movements.

The revolutionary bi-plane was completed with the assembly of a borrowed engine and a fuselage made of different scrap materials. The prototype, known as the ‘Christmas bullet’, was supposed to mimic the bird’s fluttering. Thus, its wings stood unsupported of any strut or wiring to allow for a free flexing motion.

In 1919, at the New York Air show, Christmas presented his model as “the safest, easiest plane in the world”. Unfortunately, instead of revolutionising aeronautics, the prototype ‘plane crashed on both of its only two-recorded flight attempts. Unable to withstand the structural loads, the wings simply collapsed.

Despite being regarded by some as the worst aeroplane ever built, not everything was a complete failure. The concept of wing cantilever design was first introduced and Dr Christmas claimed sole credit for the invention of the first interconnected hinged ailerons, charging the military 100,000 dollars in 1923 for the patent’s rights.

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