After a brief holiday break from writing we shall return to our regular schedule. But first, the Plane of the Week Holiday Special: the Christmas Bullet.
The Christmas Bullet is generally acknowledged to be the worst airplane ever built. Not only was it designed so terribly that both prototypes crashed and killed their pilots, but its designer, Dr. William Whitney Christmas, was, according to one aviation historian, the “greatest charlatan to ever see his name associated with an airplane”.
Lets start with Dr. Christmas’s lies. Firstly, he claimed that he had hundreds of aviation patents and that he was swamped by orders for Bullets from Europe and he had a million-dollar offer to rebuild Germany’s air forces. None of this was true, but he did (claim to) get the US Army to pay him handsomely for his wing design, another lie. One of the more fantastical claims made to the US government by Dr. Christmas was that he could design an aircraft capable of flying to Germany on a mission to kidnap Kaiser Wilhelm II. He did receive a patent for the Bullet design in 1914, and later claimed to have sold the rights to his design for moveable ailerons in 1923, for $100,000. However, these were also false and he wasn’t even the first person to use movable ailerons, anyway.
Moving on to the airplane, it is very clear that Dr. Christmas knew very little about designing aircraft. The wings had no struts or support beams because he thought that aircraft wings were supposed to flap like a bird, and indeed the wings of the Christmas Bullet did- they flapped right off the plane. The Christmas Bullet was extremely heavy for its small size at 2100 pounds and the unsupported, flimsy wings peeled right off, causing the death of the pilots of both prototypes. And the worst part is, when the first one crashed and Dr. Christmas had to contact Continental to get a new engine so he could rebuild it, he told them he was building an additional prototype. Technically, this was true, so perhaps this statement was the most truthful thing he ever said about the Christmas Bullet.
Another issue with the Bullet was that it was built with hardwood and sheet metal. Modern airplanes are built with all metal, so this may not seem strange, but at the time airplanes were built of wood and canvas. This certainly contributed to the aircraft’s excessive weight. The weight of the Christmas Bullet was also too heavy for the size of the tail wing, making the Christmas Bullet very hard to control, for the very short time it was in the air, at least.
The Christmas Bullet was completed in the fall of 1918, but World War I ended before it could be flown. One problem was that the doctor couldn’t find a pilot. One by one they looked it over, tried the controls and walked away shaking their heads. Finally, Dr. Christmas was able to lure a victim hire a pilot from among the ranks of the unemployed Army Air Service pilots returning from the war. Ironically, it was just after Christmas in 1918 when Cuthbert Mills took the Christmas Bullet up for her maiden flight. He got it airborne successfully, but within moments the flimsy wings twisted and peeled from the heavy fuselage and the Bullet fell like a lead projectile, taking Mills to his death. Undaunted, Dr. Christmas hardly broke stride. Even though he had flown the Bullet without telling the Army-as he’d promised- and had destroyed their engine, he had no qualms about going back to them to ask for help getting a propeller for his second Bullet. In March 1919, Dr. Christmas put the second Bullet on display at the New York Air Show, where he had the audacity to advertise it as the ‘safest, easiest controlled plane in the world.’ It was the same airplane that would later destroy a barn and take a second test pilot’s life when it was flown for the first time.
It is at this point that, in a movie, Dr. Christmas (he even sounds like a movie villain!) would have been unmasked as a fraud and duly punished. In reality, he went on to make even grander claims, even going so far as to go before the US Congress to tell them that his Bullets were the fastest, safest and most efficient airplanes on Earth, and that he was being swamped by the aforementioned orders from Europe. In actuality, there were no orders – or Bullets. This didn’t bother Dr. Christmas, who in 1923 impudently billed the US Army $100,000 for his ‘revolutionary’ wing design. For some reason, perhaps just to get rid of him, the Army paid the bill.
Or so he claimed.