Quite a strong title isn’t it?
To have a bold statement saying that this is undeniably the worst of anything ever created by mankind is something that comes down largely to taste. You may cite such aircraft as the Douglas DC-10, a variety of failed World War II concept fighters and bombers, or the products of the Soviet Union; every aircraft has its fans and its critics.
This, on the other hand, is something else entirely.
While some may argue the failure of today’s aircraft is due largely to the fact that aviation was still very much in its infancy, therefore the cutting edge of flight development was bound to be paved with trial and error, this plane was so awful, so utterly, deliberately disgraceful, that it is something that the aviation community as a whole can agree is the absolute worst.
It can only be the Christmas Bullet.
Despite its rather contradictory name, combining a festive season with an instrument of death, the Bullet’s tale is one of fraudulence, engineering ineptitude, and destruction. In its wake, two test pilots would be dead, and the United States Army Air Service (USAAS) would’ve blown nearly $1 million in order to fund its corrupt and deceptive creator.
Dr. William Whitney Christmas was born on September 1st, 1865, in Warrenton, North Carolina. Little is known about his early life, though it is known that he joined the St. John’s Military Academy in his youth before taking both a bachelor and masters degree at the University of Virginia. He would eventually receive his doctorate in medicine from the George Washington University of Washington DC in 1905.
Christmas took a fascination in the progress and success of aviation following the Wright Brothers pioneering flight at Kittyhawk in 1903. Immediately, however, his somewhat fraudulent nature became apparent when he started to make claims that he was the original designer of the modern aileron, placing a patent on the design in 1914. While the actual creator of the aileron design we take for granted today continues to be disputed, there is little evidence to suggest that Christmas was the first to come up with the idea.
Regardless, this wasn’t his first attempt to claim fame in the aviation world, having earlier attempted to gain credibility by stating he had created a prototype aircraft as early as 1908, but it was conveniently lost in a crash. The man basically had no experience with regard to aircraft design and construction, nor did he have a clue when it came to aeronautical work. However, in these early days of aviation, as thousands of individual pilots and designers stepped forward with their weird and wonderful concepts, investors were more than happy to blow their cash on these otherwise eccentric eggheads, hoping, as if it were the national lottery, that one of these reprobates may present them with the future of aviation.
With several influential backers, now spurred on by his claim that he’d supposedly built a second aircraft of his own design named the Red Bird, Christmas founded the Christmas Aeroplane Company based in Washington D.C. in 1910. Despite the investors having never actually seen either the Red Bird or indeed any other of Christmas’ supposed designs, money continued to flow in and confidence was high in his prospective future projects. Chances are in reality he spent more of his time warming himself by the fire of their burning cash rather than actually building airplanes.
Eventually, in 1912, the company became the Durham Christmas Aeroplane Sales & Exhibition Company, and later the Cantilever Aero Company after moving to Copiague, New York in 1918.
The biggest investment for Christmas came when he convinced two brothers, Henry and Alfred McCarry, to become his backers, followed by his procurement of construction space at the Continental Aircraft Company factory in Long Island. The way in which he deceived the management to let him do this came down to an incredible plot that sounds like something ripped straight out of a Marvel comic from the 1930’s! He intended to design a plane that would be able to sneak into Germany and kidnap Kaiser Wilhelm II. Apparently blown away at the idea of having an aircraft that could be used in a secret mission to make off with a head-of-state, the company management allowed him floorspace and materials to help him build two initial designs; a single-seat “scout” and a three-place “fighting machine.”
His first project was the scout design, which became what would forever be known as the infamous Christmas Bullet.
The design was created entirely of wood with a veneer-clad fuselage, with Christmas stating that the use of wood and veneer would reduce aerodynamic drag more than any other contemporary design (it didn’t). He also claimed that he was the first ever designer to implement these construction materials and methods, apparently not through making off with other people’s ideas and calling them his own. In fact, by the time the Bullet entered production a majority of World War I German aircraft had adopted this design principle and were busy fighting over the trenches of northern France and Belgium.
Regardless of his compulsive fibbing, the Continental company and his many duped backers were still highly confident in Christmas’ proposals, and recommended him to the USAAS, suggesting that they fit the prototype Liberty L-6 engine to the aircraft. This design, which was good for between 200 and 215hp, was based off the highly successful Liberty L-12, which had been fitted to Airco DH.4 fighter and the Felixstowe F5L flying boat. Despite initial protests by the USAAS to allow both a private citizen and manufacturer the use of the prototype, they eventually relented and allowed Christmas temporary use of the engine on the condition it was for ground-use only.
Christmas would promptly ignore this proviso.
By this point, you’re probably thinking that this fraudulent little design doesn’t have anything particularly noteworthy about it that makes it worse than any others. We haven’t, however, gotten to the most jarringly bad part of the aircraft; the wing struts (or lack thereof).
Yep, the Bullet has the notoriety of not having any kinds of struts, braces or holding arms that keep the wings firmly attached to the fuselage. Christmas’ rationale for his design lacking one of the most fundamental features of an aircraft’s structure was that control of the aircraft would be achieved by the wing warping to its flying surfaces; essentially flapping like a bird. This was compounded by the fact that the aircraft was constructed using wood and steel scrounged from around the local area, not aircraft grade materials which had been specialist made.
Some people, however, were able to see through the ridiculousness of the design and knew it was doomed to failure, one of those being Chief Engineer at Continental Vincent Burnelli. Burnelli, who would later go on to experiment with lifting wing designs in the 1950’s and 60’s, attempted to implement changes to the design in order to make it actually airworthy, but was overruled by the management on multiple occasions (because who would you rather trust, your own Chief Engineer that you’ve known for years, or some quack who comes out of nowhere and says he can build a plane without a shred of either evidence or credibility to his supposed experience in the field?). The result was Burnelli resigning from the company in protest, a wise decision as anyone with even a lick of sense would want to distance themselves from this impending disaster as soon as possible!
So, what we had was a plane built with the wrong materials to a catastrophically flawed design which was penned by a fraudulent madman who had been able to convince multiple investors, an aircraft manufacturing company, and the United States Army Air Service that his design could perform feats of impossibility.
What could possibly go wrong?
The Bullet was rolled out onto the field at Continental’s Long Island factory for its maiden flight on an unspecified date somewhere between December 1918 and January 1919. The test pilot, Cuthbert Mills, was so enthusiastic about the success of the plane that he even brought his mother along to see the inaugural flight. Christmas’ ruse had worked wonders, the people were truly convinced this thing would be the future of aviation. What most didn’t know, however, was that Christmas had struggled to find a test pilot who would actually go near the Bullet, let alone fly it. It was only because Mills was down on his luck that he was willing to throw caution to the wind and head skyward in this terrifying little plane.
Finally, the tiny Bullet soared into the sky for the first time, climbing higher and higher into the frigid air of the Atlantic seaboard. As the people, and Mills’ mother, watched in anticipation, excitement quickly turned to horror as after climbing to a few hundred feet, the wing of the Bullet separated, and the compromised aircraft spiralled uncontrollably back to earth, bringing Mills’ life to a premature end.
The Bullet was destroyed, Mills was dead, and Christmas had not a single shred of remorse. Desperately, the man tried to save face by covering up the incident, primarily because he knew that he’d be in for it once the USAAS found out their precious prototype L-6 engine had been lost. Christmas never told the USAAS that the plane had crashed and the engine was destroyed, instead using his massive influence to have aviation reporters and newspaper journalists write that the maiden flight was a resounding success, and that Mills had gone on to conduct another five highly successful test flights while praising the aircraft’s handling and performance.
Most of this information was supplied by long-time friend and Christmas admirer JD Van Vilet, an aviation journalist who would continue to defend both inventor and aircraft as late as 1934, even going so far as to say that he was the creator of the first successful Cantilever Wing designed aircraft. This couldn’t have been further from the truth as the Junkers J 1 predated the Bullet by at least three years. Also, the J 1 was designed with at least a smidgen of integrity and didn’t plummet to earth killing its test pilot.
While Van Vilet did eventually admit that the Bullet crashed on its maiden flight, he claimed it was due to pilot error rather than structural failure; now that’s some fanatical admiration of a man who, for all intents and purposes, was a complete psychopath!
For Christmas, though, the charade was far from over, and he once again went back to the USAAS to request further funding for a second prototype after feeding them fraudulent information regarding the supposedly phenomenal success of the first. His most pressing issue for the time being was less the USAAS finding out their prototype engine had been destroyed, but more that he needed an engine for the second prototype. His skills at convincing were once again put to good use as he was able to get the USAAS to loan him a propeller for a second Bullet. The new Bullet would eventually be powered by a Hall-Scott L-6.
In March 1919, three months after the loss of the first Bullet, the second aircraft, which was largely identical, was built and statically displayed at the New York air show, with Christmas claiming it to be “the safest, easiest plane in the world”. The show allowed Christmas to shamelessly promote himself to the aviation media and get more investors on side for the future development of the aircraft. However, some journalists did partially see through the good doctor’s words, and were quick to note the aircraft’s inherent flaws. In an article published in Flight magazine, the author noted that “it would seem” the design and construction of the aircraft would result in a “low factor of safety,” but reassured readers that “the designer claims a safety factor of seven throughout.” The article would further go on to make false claims, probably based on statements by Christmas himself, that Britain and France had also expressed interest in the Bullet, with sizeable purchase orders now flooding in based on the aircraft’s apparently superb speed. Of course, the crash of the first one and the death of its test pilot were left conveniently out of the article.
One month after the show, Christmas was ready to kill his next test pilot… err… I mean, test the second prototype. This time, World War I veteran, Lieutenant Allington Joyce Jolly, who had fought with the French Air Force, stepped up to the challenge of flying the scary looking plane. Fortunately, he decided not to bring his mother.
The aircraft scooted up into the air from the Continental factory and almost immediately lost control before plummeting from the sky and crashing into someone’s barn; killing Jolly and destroying the aircraft. Unbelievably, Christmas was once again able to turn some wheels of influence and have this incident covered up as well, with the two McCarry brothers stating in an issue of Vanity Fair in May 1919 that the aircraft had a flawless safety record.
I’m guessing they attributed the rather large, plane-shaped hole in the side of the barn to a rogue tornado or something(?).
It was at this point that a cold realisation must’ve come across Christmas that he would eventually be found out as all production and testing was quietly brought to a halt. However, this didn’t stop him from continuing to defraud the military for further funding. In a testimony to the House Select Committee on Expenditures in the War Department, Christmas continued to boast how his aircraft outperformed European equivalents, even saying he had photographic evidence to prove its success. As a further slap to the face for the USAAS, the only reason Christmas didn’t present his photographic evidence to the committee, aside from the fact that none existed, was due, as he put it, to the negatives being destroyed as part of a conspiracy by the government against him.
For the next three years, Christmas continued to issue patent after patent for individual design aspects of an aircraft which had been destroyed twice years earlier. Eventually, after having made an absolute mint off the backs of the taxpayer, Christmas called an end to his charade in 1923, billing the USAAS $100,000 for his patented wing design.
Christmas would spend the rest of his life continuing to make outrageous yet incredibly convincing claims as to either his projects or commissions. He even went so far as to state that Germany had offered him $1 million to rebuild their decimated air force in the wake of World War I. In 1955, he took on the role of Vice President for the General Development Corporation, a Miami-based real estate company that would become the largest land developer in Florida. As you would imagine, the company would later be brought up on charges of fraudulent home sales; something I wouldn’t put past a business associated with Christmas.
Eventually, the story of Dr. William Whitney Christmas and his insatiable lies came to an end on April 14th, 1960, when he passed away from Pneumonia at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, aged 94. Christmas died an incredibly wealthy man, but also a man with blood on his hands, having never apologised or publicly stated his involvement in the deaths of two test pilots in his utterly catastrophic Bullet. Worse still, he was never prosecuted or charged with manslaughter, as it was his conscious decision to allow test pilots to fly a plane he knew was incredibly unsafe.
The story of Christmas and his Bullet would probably make a great satirical film. It really does sound like something out of a dark comedy, where the antihero is somehow able to continually convince those around him of his greatness and is rewarded for it; akin to 2005’s ‘Thank You for Smoking’. Christmas suffered no repercussions for his actions and was able to keep his swindled fortune to his dying day, becoming among the most financially successful aircraft designers in history despite the fact that his aircraft either crashed or never existed in the first place.
That, ladies and gentleman, is truly the reason why the Christmas Bullet is the worst plane ever made, ever. Aside from the fact that it was catastrophically flawed, its biggest crime was the fact that it was born from a fraudulent scheme to make cash from the U.S. government and then slap together a useless airplane which did nothing but kill people.
While there have been plenty of other aircraft which have either crashed profusely or weren’t even able to get off the ground, the Christmas Bullet is the most notable because of the fact that, unlike other inventors who were either blinded by ambition or outstripped by the real life practicalities of building airplanes, it was built to fail. Christmas was not an aircraft inventor, but a conman (and possible psychopath) who was in it for the loot, and that’s exactly what he got.