The Worst Military Airplane Ever
The history of aviation is filled with truly terrible aircraft. For every Sopwith Camel there was the SPAD S.A, which placed the gunner precariously in front of the propeller to clear his field of fire. For every Spitfire there was the Boulton-Paul Defiant, a WWII turret fighter based on outdated WWI tactics. For every Boeing 747 there was the Bristol Brabazon, a giant white elephant designed by committee and obsolete long before it was completed, and for every Messerschmitt 262 there was the Me-163 Komet, a rocket fighter so dangerous it killed far more of its own pilots than enemy ones. But in the pantheon of awful aircraft, one stands head and shoulders above the rest: the Christmas Bullet, a machine made terrible not because of human error, rushed design, bureaucracy, or the steady march of technology, but because its creator was among the most shameless, audacious charlatans in American history.
William Whitney Christmas was born on September 1, 1865 in Warrenton, North Carolina. He attended St. John’s Military Academy, the University of Virginia, and George Washington University, earning a Masters in the Arts before switching to a career in medicine. Though throughout his life he styled himself as “Doctor” Christmas, there is no evidence he ever obtained a formal medical degree. In any case his medical career was short-lived, for sometime in the early 1900s he abandoned his practice to enter the brand-new field of aviation. Christmas supposedly built and flew his first aircraft in 1908, but claimed he was forced to burn it in order to protect the top-secret design. Though no evidence of this machine’s existence has ever been found, in 1909 Christmas did patent a design he dubbed the “Red Bird,” a direct copy of an aircraft called the “Red Wing” built by telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s Aerial Experimentation Association. Though again there is no evidence this aircraft was ever built or flown, soon thereafter Christmas set out in search of business partners with which to launch his own aircraft company.
On October 26, 1909, Christmas incorporated the Christmas Aeroplane Company in Washington D.C, along with investors Creed M. Fulton, Lester C. McLeod, and Thomas W. Buckley. While over the next eight years the trio would pour thousands of dollars into the company – variously renamed to the Durham Christmas Aeroplane Sales & Exhibition Company and later the Cantilever Aero Company – no aircraft were ever built, though on December 5, 1915 Christmas published an article in the New York Times in which he claimed to have sold eleven “Battle Cruisers” to Britain and France. Finally, in 1917, Fulton, McLeod, and Buckley left the partnership in disgust. Undaunted, Christmas managed to convince brothers Henry and Alfred McCorey, who ran a brokerage firm in New York, to invest in the company. That same year, America entered the Great War. Sensing an opportunity, Christmas paid a visit to the struggling Continental Aircraft Company of Amityville, Long Island and laid out a series of advanced aircraft designs, including a single-seat “scout” and a three-place “fighting machine.” In a truly bizarre move, Christmas pitched these designs as part of an audacious plan to fly into German territory and kidnap Kaiser Wilhelm II, thereby forcing Germany to capitulate. Desperate for contracts, Continental accepted Christmas’ proposal, and assigned Vincent Burnelli as chief designer.
To power his aircraft, variously known as the “Christmas Bullet,” “Cantilever Aero Bullet,” or “Christmas Strutless Biplane,” Christmas contacted New York Senator James Wadsworth, who convinced the U.S. Army to lend Christmas one of its experimental Liberty 6 engines. The engine was provided on the condition it only be used for ground tests and that the Army inspect the aircraft before its maiden flight – conditions Christmas promptly ignored. Meanwhile, back at the factory, Burnelli was growing increasingly concerned with Christmas’ unorthodox design choices. Inexplicably, the good Doctor insisted that the aircraft’s fuselage be constructed of steel and wood veneer, resulting in an aircraft that weighed an astonishing 2100 lb – nearly twice as much as comparable aircraft of the era. But even more concerning were the machine’s wings. While at the time most biplane wings had to be braced with struts for structural rigidity, Christmas insisted these were unnecessary and that the wings should be allowed to flex freely, almost like a bird’s wings flapping. Worse still, the wings were constructed of short sections welded together, creating joints that, in Burnelli’s words, could be “snapped over your knee”, and were so heavy they had to be winched onto the fuselage. Burnelli tried desperately to get the design changed, but Christmas refused to budge and the first Bullet was completed to his original specifications. However, by this time the Great War had already ended, putting an end to Christmas’ harebrained kidnapping plan.
Unsurprisingly, Christmas had great difficulty finding a pilot willing to test-fly the Bullet, with candidate after candidate taking one look at the machine before, we imagine, letting out a giant “nope!” and walking away. Eventually, however, Christmas convinced air mail pilot Cuthbert Mills to get behind the controls. The maiden flight, which took place sometime in January 1919, started out promisingly, with the Bullet rising gracefully off the airfield and steadily climbing to 3000 feet. Suddenly, however, the wings ripped off the fuselage and sent Mills spiralling into the ground, killing him instantly. An article in Flight magazine published a month later neatly summed up the underlying cause of the crash:
“It would seem that such construction would result in a low factor of safety, but the designer claims a safety factor of seven throughout.”
Christmas, unfazed by the accident, proceeded to cover up Mills’ death and ran a newspaper ad claiming that the Bullet had achieved a speed of 197 mph over Central Park, Long Island, an event apparently witnessed by Army Air Corps Colonel Ernest Harmon. Then, with characteristic audacity, he returned to the Army and, despite having destroyed their brand-new engine, somehow convinced them to lend him a propeller for his new prototype. The second Bullet was displayed at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1919, before being sent to the testing field. Shortly before its maiden flight, it was realized that the propeller was too long and dug into the ground, prompting Christmas to enter the hangar and cut down the offending blades with a saw…
Predictably, the second test flight also ended in a crash, resulting in the death of pilot Lt. Allington Joyce Jolly. Nonetheless, Christmas and the McCorey Brothers appeared in the May 1919 issue of Vanity Fair, with Christmas describing the Bullet as the “safest, easiest plane in the world.” But even Christmas must have realized that he could not go on killing pilots indefinitely, and abandoned the project before the Bullet could be formally evaluated by the U.S. Army. Instead, he set out to sell some of his 300 aeronautical patents to the US Government, appearing in 1923 before the House Select Committee on Expenditures in the War Department. In his testimony Christmas made all manner of outlandish claims, including that his company was being swamped with orders from Europe, that he had received a million-dollar offer to rebuild Germany’s air force, and that the prototype Bullets had indeed flown successfully but that the negatives had been destroyed by the Government as part of a conspiracy against him. Then, in an astounding display of Christmas’s sheer audacity and silver-tongued charm, he billed the Army $100,000 for the use of his “revolutionary” flexible-wing design – and the Army paid up…
William Christmas would move on to a long succession of ventures and schemes, eventually ending up as Vice President of the General Development Corporation, a Miami-based real estate firm. He died a wealthy man in 1960 at the age of 95. During his brief foray into aviation, Christmas had accomplished something almost unheard of. He had swindled his business partners and the US Government, built one of the worst aircraft in history, and was responsible for the deaths of two pilots, yet still somehow managed to come out on top. His is a story of ambition and skulduggery that could only have taken place in the lawless Wild West of early American Aviation.
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Another aircraft that frequently tops lists of the worst ever is the Fisher XP-75 Eagle. Designed as a long-range bomber escort by the Fisher Body division of General Motors in 1942, the Eagle was a Frankenstein’s monster of an aircraft, cobbled together from the tail of a Douglas SBD Dauntless torpedo bomber, the wings of a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter, and the undercarriage of a Vought F4U Corsair fighter. Unusually, the twin V-12 engines were mounted behind the pilot and connected to the propellers through a long driveshaft running under the cockpit floor. The idea behind this hybrid construction was to reduce costs and speed production by using components from already-proven aircraft.
But while the P-75 was touted by GM as a “wonder plane” with incredible range and rate of climb, in testing the Eagle proved to be something of a turkey. Its engine was underpowered and prone to overheating, the aircraft’s rearward centre of gravity made it unstable, and its undersized wings and control surfaces gave it poor handling characteristics. Development dragged on for two years, and while many of these early teething problems were worked out by September 1944, by this time the Eagle had already been surpassed in its intended escort role by production aircraft such as the North American P-51 Mustang and Lockheed P-38 Lightning, and production was halted after only six P-75s had been completed.
While the Eagle may have seemed like a terrible idea right from the start, there was method to GM’s madness. The company’s conversion from peacetime automobile production to wartime aircraft production had taken herculean effort, its five eastern automotive plants having to be torn down and rebuilt essentially overnight. Aircraft manufacturing had also proven very different to automobile manufacturing, and it had taken years of dedicated work to iron out all the kinks in the assembly process.
By 1942, GM factories were at full capacity producing aircraft like the Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber and 4F4 Wildcat fighter and the North American B-25 Mitchell medium bomber. In that same year, Boeing finished development of its sophisticated new B-29 Superfortress bomber, stoking fears among GM’s management that their factories would soon be forced to produce them. Wishing to avoid a repeat of their previous woes with tooling-up new production lines, GM hatched a clever scheme. By agreeing to take on the Army Air Force’s requirement for a long-range escort fighter, they were able to create a high-profile “priority project” that would exempt them from full-scale B-29 production. And it worked: while the Fisher Body division did produce subcomponents such as engine nacelles and tail assemblies, GM factories were never called upon to produce full B-29s. Thus for all its inherent faults, in the end the P-75 Eagle actually accomplished exactly what it was designed to.Expand for References
Dwyer, Larry, Frankenplane: General Motors / Fisher P-75 Eagle, The Aviation History Online Museum, http://www.aviation-history.com/fisher/p75.html
Holley, I.B, A Detroit Dream of Mass-Produced Fighter Aircraft: the XP-75 Fiasco, http://simson.net/ref/1987/xp-75-fighter-fiasco.pdf
Wrigley, Sylvia, The Worst Aircraft Ever Constructed, Fear of Landing, September 14, 2012, https://fearoflanding.com/history/the-worst-aircraft-ever-constructed/
Blazeski, Goran, The Christmas Bullet – World’s Worst Aircraft, The Vintage News, December 1, 2016, https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/12/01/the-christmas-bullet-worlds-worst-aircraft/
Doctor William Christmas’ Bullet, Fiddlers Green, http://www.fiddlersgreen.net/models/aircraft/Christmas-Bullet.html
Lovell, Joseph, The Christmas Bullet Was the Worst Plane Ever Made, Planelopnik, April 4, 2018, https://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/the-christmas-bullet-was-the-worst-plane-ever-made-1825187889
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