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Leonard Bonney reverted to man’s oldest intuitive flight design.

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 a pathetic dweeb wailing over Britney Spears can soak up more hits than major news events. This phenomenon also applies to aviation, which means the entire flying history of one of aviation’s minor engineering monstrosities, the Bonney Gull, can now be viewed anywhere, anytime. The unfortunate flight, from short takeoff to fatal plunge, is found on dozens of Web sites, reaching many more people than its illustrious designer and pilot, Leonard Warden Bonney, ever dreamed possible.

Born to a wealthy Long Island family in 1885, Bonney seemed blessed with 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 Fédération Aéronautique Internationale pilot’s license number 47. He must have been a very skilled flier, since he survived the perils of flying a Wright Model B pusher at exhibits around the country. If weather permitted (i.e., in virtual calms), Bonney would perform the amazing turns and dives of the day, perhaps even carrying an adventurous passenger aloft for $100 a flight. Bonney did suffer one major mishap in 1914, when an elevator cable parted on his “French monoplane” (probably a Blériot, but possibly a Deperdussin). He survived the crash from 1,200 feet.

Bonney checks out the Gull’s two-place cockpit before takeoff at Curtiss Field. (Underwood and Underwood/Corbis)

Early in his career Bonney served as a test pilot and instructor pilot for such talented designers as Charles Healy Day at Sloan Aircraft (later Standard) 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. Uninterrupted employment in aviation was as difficult to come by in those early days as it is now, and between 1913 and 1918 Bonney moved from job to job, often returning to Long Island to serve as an instructor. After World War I he worked with the Alexandria Aircraft Company.

Bonney benefited from 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. His third and fourth efforts were far more impressive.

Probably as an extension of his Navy teaching, Bonney was a member of the very first American aerial antisubmarine patrol, made on March 27, 1917. When the Aerial Reserve Squadron at Mineola, N.Y., launched an effort to find the German sub U-53 (later notorious for sinking five U.S. ships), Bonney flew one of the seaplanes involved. The soon to be famous Burt Acosta flew another, none of which spotted the sub.

In Mexico during 1914-15, in the service of General Venustiano Carranza’s government, Bonney either instructed the Mexican pilots in dropping primitive bombs on enemy warships or actually engaged in the bombing himself. It’s difficult to definitively determine which was the case, since official Mexican accounts attribute those contributions to the Mexican pilots Bonney helped instruct. Other accounts say that he was not only personally involved, his airplane was damaged by antiaircraft fire in the first ever dive-bombing attacks. This seems to be pushing the point a bit, but there’s a convincing photo of Bonney in the cockpit of a Moisant monoplane, and it’s not improbable he also flew in combat.

Bonney was thus hard-wired in aircraft design from masters in the field, engaged in that most taxing and fearsome of all aviation tasks—instructing—and experienced in combat operations. This makes it all the more imponderable why he elected 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 a plane as similar to a sea gull as possible. He observed them in flight, then—in experiments that would inflame today’s PETA— actually attached weights to them to test their lifting capability. He also poured his accumulated experience into some very advanced engineering ideas that probably proved fatal.

He began work on the Gull in 1926, in cooperation with the Kirkham Company in Garden City, N.Y. Kirkham was the fallback manufacturer for many designers during that period. Charles Kirkham had 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 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 he poured his genius into the design of its extraordinarily complex aluminum wings. 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.

After it crashed, “The New York Times” fittingly reported that “as it lay spread out on the ground it resembled a mangled gull.” (Warren Bodie Collection)

Many photos taken over Bonney’s lifetime show him looking harassed, perhaps even ill. Yet on May 4, 1928, he was photographed in the cockpit of his $83,000 experiment looking relaxed and confident. The previous year a brief hop in the aircraft had resulted in a minor crash, but this didn’t seem to bother him. He followed his early training by taking a flight in another plane to “get the feel of the air,” then prepared for his test flight. The film shows him prudently checking control operations. It would be fascinating to know what he was thinking just then. He could not have known whether his many untested aerodynamic devices would actually work.

The YouTube film completes the saga. The Bonney Gull makes a perfectly normal takeoff 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 any attempt to recover. There was no accurate analysis of the crash. Some speculated that Bonney “moved the wrong lever,” which—given his experience—is unlikely. It may be that his devices couldn’t withstand the actual aerodynamic forces encountered.

Bonney was thrown 50 feet from the aircraft and fatally injured. In a poignant summary of 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 lay spread out on the ground it resembled a mangled gull.”

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


Originally published in the September 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here