Aeronautical Myths and Muddles

Thirteen Things You Thought You Knew about J W Dunne's Aeroplanes

Few historical characters can have had so many mistakes and fairytales concocted around them as the father of the tailless aeroplane. Here are thirteen of the more popular ones, all revealed by the ten thousand and more aeronautical documents and artefacts in his personal archive. If you thought you knew anything about J W Dunne, I'll bet you believed at least one of the following "facts":

NOT: He met his future partner/s Col. Capper and/or the Marquess of Tullibardine while serving in the Boer War.
In fact, while they all served as soldiers in South Africa at the same time, he did not meet either of them until afterwards.
NOT: He was a mathematician and/or an engineer.
In fact, his father never let him study maths at school and when he eventually sought tuition as an adult, he made little progress. Although he worked for the Royal Engineers he himself was in the Wiltshire Regiment and never studied engineering at all.
NOT: His first stable aeroplane, discovered in 1904, was his trademark tailless swept "arrowhead".
In fact, it was a rotor aeroplane. His oft-quoted claim to the President of the AeS, of having "solved the problem of [stable powered] flight", was about one of these rotor-wing craft. He went on to discover the "Rogallo" type delta wing later that same year and sent a flying model to the Lord Rayleigh early in 1905. He did not discover the swept arrowhead, which had essentially the same aerodynamics as the delta, until later that year.
NOT: His trademark arrowhead aircraft was inspired by the zanonia seed.
In fact, he briefly studied the seed before rejecting its flying qualities. It may have been stable in pitch and roll but it was directionally unstable, a characteristic which aided seed dispersal but was wholly unacceptable in the inherently stabe wing which he sought. He drew his main inspiration from seagulls. His sister May would even feed them sandwiches, allowing him to observe their wing movements from close up.
NOT: His trademark arrowhead aircraft was a flying wing.
In fact, the pilot, engine and other equipment items were mounted on a framework or fuselage outside the wing; they were all technically "tailless aircraft".
NOT: He took a monoplane to Blair Atholl.
In fact, the myth arose from a muddled recollection by his assistant (who had even forgotten that there had been two visits in consecutive years!) and then got pounced on by some historians. The primary evidence points firmly the other way. The D.1, D.3 and D.4 were all biplanes, while the D.2 was a triplane which was never built.
NOT: He was too ham-fisted to be able to reassemble his aeroplanes at Blair Atholl.
In fact, this was a man who made precise aerodynamic models of only a few inches span and tied unusually fiddly dry flies with exquisite precision. The Army had given him old, bent and broken tools, he was untrained in their use, moreover he was suffering from a fever to the point of incoherence and was dosing himself up on quinine to keep going.
NOT: His aeroplanes all had fins and rudders.
In fact neither the D.1 biplane nor any of his monoplanes had any such surfaces, while none of the other biplanes had movable rudders; synchronised turning was accomplished solely via carefully-tailored proverse aileron yaw. The other biplanes did have vertical "endplate" surfaces which had a stabilising effect, though the effect was unnecessary and if anything led to excessive stability, but their main purpose was to reduce tip losses and the sideways flow induced by the swept configuration; in this they had more in common with the endplates of the Bristol Boxkite and with wing fences or winglets than tailfins.
NOT: His D.9 is also known as the James Monoplane.
In fact, this is another muddle created by careless historians. The D.9 was a typical Dunne parallel-chord pusher biplane with elevon control, but with the lower wing shortened and no vertical surfaces. It was never built. The so-called James or Leonie Monoplane, more correctly called the Levis-Belmont monoplane, was a tractor monoplane with triangular wings controlled via wing-warping and a tail fin and rudder, and was built by an unrelated company. Its design came under one or more of Dunne's patents, but he played no part in it whatsoever. It was built and its engine is currently on display at the Science Museum.
NOT: In aeronautical terms, he was a failure.
In fact, he sat on the ruling Council of the Aeronautical Soociety of Great Britain from 1911 to 1914. When the Society organised a delegation to parliament in 1911, Dunne was persuaded to be their keynote opening speaker. In 1913 his achievements in both the theory and practice of aeronautics had become so significant that he was honoured with the very first Certificate of Fellowship of the Society ever to be awarded. Around 30 Dunne machines were built and flown in three countries, and none ever killed pilot, passenger or onlooker - a staggering success by the standards of the pioneer era.
NOT: His planes failed to sell and his Blair Atholl Aeroplane Syndicate folded because the planes failed to work.
In fact, they worked well - well enough to carry out the first rough-weather crossing of the English Channel and to sustain a US production run of 19 licenced Burgess-Dunnes. The truth was that Dunne was left almost entirely to run the show but he could not organise a round of drinks in a brewery, even when he was out of his sickbed - indeed he was sometimes forced to run it from his sickbed.
NOT: Duinne's work was all empirical tinkering, he had no real theory to back his ideas.
In fact, his ideas were way ahead of his time. He lectured the Society on The Theory of the Dunne Aeroplane in 1913 and it was serialised in Flight soon afterwards. Many of his discoveries, such as the "Rogallo" biconical delta, progressive leading-edge droop of a swept wing for both directional and pitch stability, an implicit bell-shaped lift distribution which becomes negative at the tips, proverse yaw in the turn, graded surfaces to prevent sudden onset of a stall or spin and so on, have been rediscovered many times since and some are still only just being revisited for the first time - despite it all having been published in a leading journal over a hundred years ago!
NOT: After 1913 he never went back to aeroplane work.
In fact, he joined Armstrong Whitworth for much of 1914 and it was only the advent of urgent war work which swept his D.11 project out of their workshops. He went back briefly in 1923 to help G T R Hill get started on his first Pterodactyl, and later more seriously during World War II.

Updated 8 Dec 2020