The Bonney Gull: Folded Wings

The fatal take-off.

The fatal take-off.

It used to be that there were weights and balances in relating history. Major events drew more attention, while lesser ones passed into oblivion. No more—YouTube has completely revised the scene, and something as unimportant as the pathetic dweeb wailing over Britney Spears can soak up more hits than major news events. This phenomenon also applies to aviation, and so the entire flying history of one of aviation’s minor engineering monstrosities, the Bonney Gull, may now be viewed anywhere, any time. The entire flight, from short take-off to fatal plunge to the ground, is found on dozens of web-sites, reaching many more people than its illustrious designer and pilot, Leonard Warden Bonney, ever dreamed of.

Born to a wealthy Long Island family in 1885, Bonney seemed to live a charmed life. Instructed in 1910 by Orville Wright himself, he was one of only 119 pilots trained at the famed Simms Station facility where four hours of flight cost $250.

Bonney received the Federation Aeronautique Internationale pilot’s license number 47. He must have been very skilled as he was survived the perils of flying a Wright B Pusher at exhibits around the country. Like others, he traveled by rail from point to point; his plane safely nestled in a railway car, assembling the plane for each show. If weather permitted (i.e. virtual calms) Bonney would perform the amazing turns and dives of the day, and perhaps carry an adventurous passenger for $100 a flight. (Times change many things but not the human quest for distinction. Today, adventurous passengers are putting down $200,000 for a shorter and probably safer flight in Burt Rutan’s SpaceShip II.) Bonney did suffer a major mishap in 1914, when an elevator cable parted on his “French monoplane” (probably a Bleriot, but possibly a Deperdussin). He survived the crash from 1,200 feet.

Early in his career he was associated as a test pilot and instructor pilot with such talented aircraft designers as Charles Healy Day at Sloan Aircraft (later Standard Aircraft) and Alfred Verville at General Aircraft. He was also employed as a pilot, and then general manager of the little known Amas Aircraft Company of Washington, D.C. Sustained employment in aviation was as difficult in those early days as it is now, and between 1913 and 1918 Bonney moved from job to job, often returning to Long Island air fields to serve as an instructor. After the war he worked with the Alexandria Aircraft Company
Bonney enjoyed no less than four types of military flying experience during his youth. The first was instructing for the Army at Garden City Field, and the second instructing for the navy at Smith’s Point, both on Long Island. The third and fourth efforts were more impressive

Probably as an extension of his serving as an instructor to the Navy, Bonney was part of the very first American aerial anti-submarine patrol, made on March 27, 1917. A large scale effort was made by the Aerial Reserve Squadron at Mineola, New York, to find the German submarine U-53 (later notorious for its sinking of five American ships). Leonard Bonney flew one of the aircraft involved. The soon to be famous Burt Acosta flew another of the seaplanes, none of which spotted the submarine.

But it was in Mexico during 1914-15, in the service of General Carranza’s government, that Bonney (a) instructed the Mexican pilots in the technique of dropping primitive bombs on enemy warships or (b) actually engaged in the bomb-dropping himself. I’ve not been able to determine exactly what the situation was for official Mexican accounts attribute the actions to the Mexican pilots Bonney helped instruct. However other accounts say that he was not only personally involved, but that he received anti-aircraft fire damaging his aircraft in the first ever dive-bombing attacks. This seems to be pushing the point a bit, but there is a convincing extant photo of Bonney in the cockpit of a neat looking Moisant monoplane, and it is not improbable that he also flew combat missions.

Bonney was thus hard-wired in aircraft design from some masters in the field, engaged in that most taxing and fearsome of all aviation tasks, instructing, and experienced in real combat operations. This makes it all the more imponderable as to why he would elect to throw aside most of what he had learned in an effort to rethink aircraft design in the 1920s and revert to the oldest of man’s intuitive flight efforts, imitating the design of a bird.

Orville Wright, had observed birds and realized that copying their configuration was impractical. Yet Bonney aspired to build an airplane as similar to a sea gull as possible. He observed them in flight, and then in a manner that would inflame PETA today, actually attached weights to them to test their lifting capability. At the same time, he poured all his accumulated experience into some very advanced engineering ideas which probably proved to be fatal.

He began work on the Bonney Gull in 1926, in cooperation with the Kirkham Company in Garden City, New York. Kirkham was the fall-back manufacturer of many during the period, with Charles Kirkham having more than proved his worth with Glenn Curtiss (Curtiss K-12 engine) Cornelius Vanderbilt (Air Yacht), Al Williams (300 mph racer) and many others. His was a niche company, able to manufacture “one-off” aircraft and engines. Some reports said that Bonney had designed the Kirkham 180 hp radial engine selected for the Gull, but this seems unlikely.

In appearance the Bonney Gull resembled an Alexander Bullet in bird-drag. A low-wing, cantilever monoplane with a very neat enclosed two-place cockpit, it was filled with intricate mechanical and hydraulic devices, including a wing-folding mechanism that presaged that of later Grumman fighters. Bonney wanted a VSTOL Gull, and poured his genius into the design of the extraordinarily complex wings. Of aluminum structure, they featured both dihedral and anhedral, and could be moved from their (rather large) normal 10 degree angle of incidence to 45 degrees.

They also incorporated an automatic variable camber mechanism and reportedly variable dihedral, although how this was done is not obvious. The landing run was to be shortened by moving a lever that caused the wings to rotate around the main spar, spilling lift and acting as a brake. The wings had large inboard flaps, with outer “pinions” that could sweep both forward and aft by 20 degrees, serving as ailerons. In the rear, an elevator trim mechanism was fitted to the gull-like rear horizontal surfaces, which reportedly could be dimensionally compressed in flight, reducing their area. Even the landing gear was advanced, with single streamlined struts, independent braking and a faired-in steerable tail wheel. .

Photos taken over Bonney’s lifetime often show him as rather harassed, perhaps even ill. Yet on May 4, 1928, he was photographed in the very trim side-by-side cockpit of his $83,000 experiment, looking relaxed and confident. The previous year a brief hop in the aircraft resulted in a minor crash, but this did not seem to bother him. Bonney followed his early training by taking a flight in another aircraft to “get the feel of the air”, then prepared for his test fight. The film shows him prudently checking control operation before takeoff.

It would be fascinating to know what he was thinking at that point. He had succeeded in building an aircraft resembling a gull, but could not have known if his many untested aerodynamic devices would work.

The YouTube film completes the saga. The Bonney Gull makes a perfectly normal take off and reaches perhaps 100 feet in the air, its swinging pinions keeping it level. It then pitches straight down into the ground with no sign of an attempt to recover.

There was no accurate analysis of the crash. Some speculated that “he moved the wrong lever” which, given his experience, is unlikely. It may be that his devices could not withstand the actual aerodynamic forces encountered. Bonney was fatally injured, thrown fifty feet from the aircraft. In a poignant concluding sentence on the incident, the New York Times reported: “The plane had fallen with wings outspread, almost turned over on its back. The fuselage was broken in half, but the long wings had preserved their formation, and as it laid spread out on the ground it resembled a mangled gull.”

The comment might have given some slight satisfaction to Leonard Bonney.

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