Christmas Bullet

William Whitney Christmas was a rather interesting and eccentric pioneer during the early days of aviation. Born in 1865, Christmas attended St. John's Military Academy, the University of Virginia, and George Washington University obtaining Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees and becoming a medical doctor. However, he left his medical practice shortly after the Wright Brother's first flights to pursue his own interest in the new field of aviation.

Dr. Christmas claimed to make his first flight in March of 1908 in a plane of his own design. Furthermore, he claimed that after the vehicle crashed into a tree, he burned it to prevent his design secrets from being stolen. While there is no solid evidence to support this story, Christmas did patent, build, and fly a biplane of his own design in 1909. This aircraft, known as the Red Bird, was representative of many of his later designs and can be distinguished by its anhedral (down-sloping) upper wings and dihedral (up-sloping) lower wings. Another noteworthy tidbit about this design is that it appears to be a virtual copy of a plane built by a company named AEA that was, interestingly enough, also known as the Red Bird. In the words of one historian, "the eccentric Dr. Christmas was not above employing the ideas of others" and may well have patented another company's design!

Nonetheless, the success of the Red Bird and a modified Red Bird II led to the founding of the Christmas Aeroplane Company based in Washington, DC, in 1910. The company became the Durham Christmas Aeroplane Sales & Exhibition Company around 1912 and later the Cantilever Aero Company after moving to Copiague, NY, in 1918.

While few of Christmas' aircraft ever saw production, his most famous and controversial design was the Christmas Bullet shown below.

Christmas Bullet
Christmas Bullet [from Aerofiles, 2001]

Co-designed with another interesting aviation pioneer, Vincent Burnelli (who only admitted to designing the fuselage), the Bullet was intended to meet a requirement for a military scout plane. The single-engine biplane was fitted with unbraced cantilevered wings designed to flex during flight. Unfortunately this gross lack of wing strength led to in-flight structural failures of both aircraft on 30 December 1918 and 1 May 1919. This failure aside, the Bullet was noteworthy for being the first or one of the first aircraft to introduce a veneer-clad fuselage to reduce skin-friction drag and interconnected movable ailerons on the wing trailing edge. Christmas received a patent for the Bullet design in 1914, a fact which he used to make the claim that he had invented the aileron. Dr. Christmas even claimed that the US government bought the rights to his movable ailerons in 1923 for $100,000 to avoid a copyright infringement suit, but there appears to be no evidence to support this claim. In fact, Christmas is only one of many early pioneers who claim to have invented the aileron, including the Wrights and Glenn Curtis.

Dr. Christmas continued designing aircraft into the 1910s and 1920s, but none appear to have made it into production. Probably one of the most interesting concepts was the Aerial Express of 1928, a giant 100-passenger flying wing with intercontinental range that appears to have been inspired by Burnelli's lifting fuselage aircraft. The Aerial Express, being of huge dimensions, was to have been powered by no less than eight powerful engines driving two enormous propellers. William Whitney Christmas always had a flair for self-promotion, having claimed not only the aileron but over 100 other aeronautical patents and some 200 additional inventions. While most of these claims have never been substantiated (10 to 15 aeronautical patents is probably more accurate), Christmas was a showman not only as an airplane designer and builder but also as a pilot. Having set endurance and ceiling records in 1912 and making appearances at numerous air shows, Christmas probably did much to excite the public about flight and to push the bounds of aviation technology. Dr. William Christmas died in 1960 at the age of 94.
- answer by Joe Yoon, 5 August 2001

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