If you were his friend, you didn’t call him “Slick”, you called him “Chal”, and you admired him both for his flying career and for his valiant efforts to obtain recognition for the prescient designs of Vincent J. Burnelli. Those designs, so remarkably modern when first introduced, are at last being realized, if not recognized, today in experimental vehicles such as the Boeing X48B, a “blended wing body” aircraft.
Handsome as a movie star, Chalmers Goodlin led a fabulous life as a pioneering experimental test pilot, air combat veteran, successful entrepreneur and unswerving advocate of the brilliance of Burnelli’s designs. A cynic might detect a Quixotic element in his advocacy, for Goodlin tilted for more than fifty years with the leading windmills of his time—the USAF, major aircraft companies such as Airbus, Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and Northrop, as well as the NACA and NASA. He never won a decisive battle, except in the minds of his many supporters, despite the fact that several Burnelli designs have appeared in corporate/government guise. There are several examples of this. A 1951 Burnelli designed was reprised in the 1995 McDonnell Douglas “Megaplane” while the Burnelli GB-888A design of 1964 was closely followed in the Boeing/NASA X-43B of 2002. However the best example might be the Boeing X48B, which is very similar to Burnelli’s 1945 patent model, as a casual examination of the photographs reveals.
Two 21-foot wingspan prototypes of the X48B have been procured by the United States Air Force. Designed in the Boeing “Phantom Works” in cooperation with NASA and the Air Force, the X48B is the latest in a long series of blended wing body designs that rely on multiple control surfaces on the wing rather than the empennage of a conventional “tube and wing” aircraft.
Chal’s friends can hear him snorting in heaven at the spin-doctoring of Burnelli’s lifting body concept to the term “blended wing body.” His dramatic mustache would twirl and the tips would point at photographs of the 1945 Burnelli model and the X48B, with their near identical outlines. And with his usual clinical accuracy, he would demolish any claims of independent development, different airfoils, new structures and the use of composite materials. To Chal, the evidence would be there in the photographs. Goodlin also felt that eight Burnelli aircraft had flown, one being used by Charles de Gaulle as a personal transport during WW II. IN the only crash of a Burnelli aircraft, the strength and safety inherent in the lifting body design was demonstrated by the lack of serious damage to the structure.
In his many battles, Goodlin always conducted himself with the utmost charm and civility, no matter how ferocious the content of his written or verbal communications. His arguments were articulate, well documented and gracious. Sadly they were ignored for the most part, not for their content but because of their legal implications. Those challenged by Chal could not concede the validity of his case without incurring a legal liability.
Goodlin championed the Burnelli designs with arguments buttressed by strong historic, physical, photographic and documentary evidence and his own expertise. Ironically, he may have done this so well that he prevented Burnelli’s basic concept of a lifting body airliner from being widely adopted. No company wished to proceed with a “not-invented here” design, for which they would have to pay a royalty. And to be fair, Chal’s unremitting adherence to his cause and his demands for unqualified recognition of Burnelli’s genius irritated many who might otherwise have been more willing to compromise.
To return to an earlier idea, Chalmers Goodlin was no Don Quixote. He was instead a truly self-made man. Born in 1923, he soloed at 16 in a Piper Cub. He joined the Royal Canadian Air Force at 18, got the nickname “Slick” for his instrument flying capability, and became reputedly the youngest commissioned officer in the RCAF. Unable to get a combat assignment, he agreed in December, 1942, to return to the United States and become a test pilot for the Navy. In 1943 he was released by the Navy to become a test pilot for Bell, where he flew a wide variety of experimental and prototype aircraft. Goodlin flew 26 missions in the Bell XS-1 including its first powered flights. Sadly his pioneering efforts were maligned in subsequent books and the (to me) odious film The Right Stuff. His next job was as the Chief Test Pilot of the new-born Israeli Air Force.
Goodlin then became a very successful businessman, but still managing to devote himself to espousing the Burnelli cause. He was particularly proud of the ground-breaking blended wing and body design (Burnelli U.S. Patent No. 2,586,299, filed Sept. 11, 1945) that presaged the X48B.
I met Chalmers when I was Director of the National Air and Space Museum. He made his usual great case for the Burnelli, and while he was disappointed that I could not allow NASM to become a vehicle for his arguments, he was always friendly if sometimes fiercely so. In the later years we often corresponded about many things, but he kept his belief in Burnelli in the foreground. He was always pleasant, often entertaining, and extremely courteous—it was a pleasure to know him.
Chal took his last flight on October 20, 2005, after a typically long and gallant fight for life, comforted until the end by his loving wife Aila. His legacy includes more than the history of his dramatic 7,000 hour flying career and the designs of the Burnelli firm he led. Far more important is the way he became an inspiration for everyone to fight for their beliefs, no matter how unpopular they may be, and no matter how adverse the odds.