J W Dunne Aeronauticalia

"...how far he was ahead of his time. ... There does not seem to be much that John William Dunne did not foresee." — CM Poulsen, Flight, May 1943.

J. W. Dunne was the father of the tailless swept wing and the first aviation professional to be employed by the British government. Here is a collection of aeronautical tidbits, many from his own personal papers. Though short, it is packed with new findings, old tales set in a new light, curious trivia and a few outstanding mysteries. For a list of his significant designs, see The Aircraft of J W Dunne.


Models galore

Dunne did most of his research experimentally, by making and flying a huge number of models. he only began keeping them from around mid-1904. Almost all the models that survive are paper, with a pin as a nose weight (often removed). A few have balsa wood accessories such as stub fuselages. I have not measured any accurately, but most are around 4" span with others varying from about 2" to 6".

A few small wing rotors still survive – long, narrow rectangles of stiff paper with thin wires meticulously glued along their long axes to act as pivots – though no longer attached to any wing. Complete models which confirm written accounts of the period include the Dunne-Huntington style triplane, canards with "the tail at the front", biconical "Rogallo" deltas, seabird shaped M-wings, a folding bat-wing and many variations on his classic monoplane and biplane. The individual size, the great quantity and variety of models again support written accounts. Undocumented models include conventional tailed examples and a rubber-powered tailless swept wing with tractor propeller, made from a wire frame with rubber motor still attached and with blue tissue used for both the wings and propeller (one blade is missing). Boxes of spare pins, sticks and perished rubber bands complete the collection, supporting those comments by brother Frank and HG Wells that his earliest models were built of "cane, paper and elastic".

The significance of any individeual model or group of similar models can only be established by examining the documentary record.

Rotor aeroplanes

According to one letter from his father, the young J. W. Dunne began his aeronautical investigations "long before" he joined in the Boer War in 1900. There is no hint what form these took - they might have been balloons or parachutes for all we know - and the statement is unsupported. Probably, they were the playthings of any teenage aeromodeller at that time.

His first significant model on returning from South Africa was, in his words, "a marriage of the kite and the windmill" inspired by a Jules Verne story. But it failed.

So, at some point in 1900 or 1901, he began methodical experiments. Some of his notes survive, torn from an exercise book. About a dozen concern various horizontal-axis Magnus and wing rotors, followed by all kinds of weird wing planforms, some curled up at the back. Most are sketched.

Dunne lost his two key documents on his early work into "spinners", leaving us all in the dark as to what they were. He wrote a note which he gave to HG Wells to pass on to Lord Rayleigh, and he made a provisional patent application. He was unable later to lay his hands on either document. A later provisional patent has survived in among those endless boxes. It describes exactly the kind of horizontal-axis rotors depicted in his notes and accords well with what one Science Museum curator called "rotor aeroplanes".

Lord Rayleigh (Influential astronomer and sometime investigator into spinning tennis balls) replied to the effect that rotors were impractical and he had best look for a stable fixed wing, so at least we know Rayleigh got the write-up even if we still do not know what it said.

NACA modified some full-size craft and carried out some flight tests around the 1950s, but I don't think they realised that Dunne had beaten them to the patent office by half a century.

The classic tailless swept wing

Almost all the models that survive are paper, with a pin as a nose weight (often removed). A few have balsa wood accessories such as stub fuselages. I have not measured any accurately, but most are around 4" span with others varying from about 2" to 6". Early models include Rogallo deltas and seabird shaped M-wings. These are confirmed to exist for the first time and support his written accounts of this period. Late 1904 models on show many classic Dunne variations, including some biplanes, the odd Dunne-Huntington style triplane, and other tailed types. A folding bat wing he once described is also in there. The individual size, the great quantity and variety of models again support written accounts. There is also an undocumented rubber-powered tailless swept wing with tractor propeller, having a wire frame with rubber motor still attached, blue tissue used for both the wings and propeller (one blade is missing). Although of little real significance in itself, it indirectly supports those comments by brother Frank and HG Wells that his earliest rotor craft were built of "cane, paper and elastic".

In the summer of 1906, at the Balloon Factory he built and flew a remarkably detailed model biplane to test his theories. Photographs he kept show it to have been a miniature jewel only a foot (30 cm) or so across. It failed and he went on to develop the three-foot (1 m) span model that proved his theories later that year.

In the run-up to his engagement there, the correspondence passing between the various players - Baden-Powell, Dunne's father, Capper, the War Office, the Royal Engineers and of course Dunne himself - shows just how tight-knit the whole community was. Dunne's contributions to aviation were as much behind the scenes, where today only archivists care to tread: he rose to high status in the Aeronautical Society, as all of Fellow, Council member and leading activist. On 5 December 1911 he led an industry-wide formal deputation to Parliament to lobby the Under Secretary of State for War and used the opportunity to defuse a potentially damaging conflict. Dunne was not as powerful a figure in the Aero Club as he was in the Aeronautical Society, but he was significantly more than just another member. He joined the Club in 1907, three years after joining the Society. Besides being a regular denizen of the Club grounds for five years, he was also a member of the Grounds Committee right through until after war broke out, and a good personal friend of key figures such as Huntington, McClean and Ogilvie.

The D.2. triplane glider (never built) had a span of 18 ft and a length of 13 ft 6 in, its plan designed on a 4 ft 6 in grid. Control lines ran forward from the Dunne-Huntington style control surfaces, though there is no sign of a pilot's seat in the sketches.

All the Dunne monoplanes built in England belonged to Colonel Capper. He started making the first one, nowadays sometimes referred to as the Dunne-Capper monoplane but historically as the D.6, way back in 1910 because he wanted to learn to fly in it. When it refused to fly the Syndicate agreed to modify it, test it and give it him back. Over the following years this revised D.7 suffered a total of four crashes at Dunne's hands alone and at least two complete write-offs with replacement machines built for him, all in the name of "testing". After the last smash it languished in sheds until the Syndicate bought it in exchange for shares in order to clear the financial decks for a takeover (of which more below). Poor Capper never once got to fly his own aeroplane. Much of that frankly was Dunne's fault and the two rather fell out - One of the main Directors and son of their sometime host at Blair Atholl, the Marquess of Tullibardine had to work to keep them apart at one point.

Dunne did not leave aeronautics completely in 1913, he merely gave up flying. Not only did he remain a leading figure in the Aeronautical Society and Aero Club for a while longer, but he also remained an active designer and director with the Syndicate, producing drawings for an updated machine well into 1914 and still corresponding even from the hospital bed described in An Experiment with Time. The Syndicate didn't fold in 1914 either, it was taken over by the great armaments firm Armstrong Whitworth, with Dunne and some of the other directors staying on. Armstrong's were gearing up to produce Dunne's new design, the D.11 (which you will not find in any history books), when war broke out and their team was pulled onto more urgent work. Many and in some cases quite bizarre were the schemes brewed up to try and find a new manufacturer for the Dunne. Burgess too in America would have done more if the British Admiralty had not busied him so with orders for conventional seaplanes.

As for Nieuport, there is a drama to be uncovered there all right. For example The Aeroplane, 12 Feb 1914, carries on p.146 a large advertisement by Nieuport (England) Ltd which includes among its offerings the Nieuport-Dunne Biplanes, while among the small ads on p.167 of the same issue is one for the Blair Atholl aeroplane Syndicate Ltd's Dunne Patent Safety Aeroplanes: two rival manufacturers selling essentially the same machine! And as for the antics of Commandant Félix - well, let's just say they were not confined to his headlining flights in the Dunne.

Ultimately, the Dunne patent safety aeroplane did not fail because it was wrong. It flew well and it flew safely. The Syndicate failed through a mixture of chronic lack of funds, mismanagement and unfortunate timing. This all led to insufficient production development and to customer orders being either massively delayed or turned away: most were never fulfilled. Even that did not finish the Dunne, for by mid-1914 three established manufacturers around the world were gearing up to do the job properly - Nieuport, Burgess and Armstrong Whitworth. The fatal blow came only with the assassination of a certain Archduke and the subsequent global diversion of military aeronautics along more developed principles.


Canada had no air force at the outbreak of war. A Burgess-Dunne machine was purchased by Canada in 1914 (some sources suggest a second), shipped to England and offered to the War Office. Predating these events by several weeks is a private and clandestine suggestion from Tullibardine, also by now a Member of Parliament, to do exactly this. If you are into early Canadian aviation history, the plot truly thickens! The craft eventually found its way to Salisbury Plain, where sadly it sat decaying into oblivion.

Through much of 1914/15 Dunne was still bound by his contract to the Syndicate - now owned by Armstrong's - which forbad him from working on aeroplanes elsewhere. But Armstrong's had been diverted away from the Dunne, leaving him with nothing to do. His aeronautical activities were thus temporarily put beyond reach. He was laid low by a succession of ailments: even his short time in alternative work as a musketry (small arms) instructor "almost killed" him and he resorted to munitions design of one sort or another. Through it all he sill passionately believed in tailless automatic stability.

Genesis of the Pterodactyl

When the war ended, Fairey, Armstrong Whitworth and the rest had to desperately downsize and restructure, and the last thing they had room for was that necessary programme of research. The civil market was saturated with old wartime surplus machines. Even the more adventurous innovators such as de Havilland preferred to make safe, incremental improvements to wartime technology. Dunne saw no future for his design and the Syndicate was finally wound up.

But one man did have sufficient private means, knowledge and determination to kickstart the development of a plane that would not kill his fellow pilots. Ex-wartime pilot Captain GTR Hill studied and advanced Dunne's work for three years, before contacting Dunne over his plans. The latter went back to his drawing board. A design dated April 1923 shows a wing much like the earlier monoplanes with their curious twisted and downturned tips, but tapered rather than constant-chord so that from above it looks very modern.

Dunne sent Hill a drawing and a paper model and stayed in contact as a series of "Pterodactyls" appeared over the next decade. I suspect that Dunne's incapacity to do mathematics was probably the killer blow against greater involvement in the design, while his now-permanent frailty ruled out any more physical contribution. Given the Syndicate's track record of mismanagement under his Technical Directorship, this was probably just as well. Had his father been less of an anti-intellectual and allowed the boy Ian to study mathematics while his brain was still developing, we might have seen a very different outcome. The father cannot escape some blame for refusing to accept his young son's obvious aptitude and wishes.

Things to Come

In 1933 HG Wells published a novel, The Shape of Things to Come and from it he derived a screenplay. The film was directed by William Cameron Menzies, produced by Alexander Korda, its title shortened to Things to Come and released three years later. It featured two futuristic aeroplanes, both overtly showing their Dunne heritage.

A light single-seater, serialled WT34, has a tailless swept wing with endplate fins and looks for all the world like a Pterodactyl monoplane, updated with a low wing after the emerging fashion of the time. It could almost be a design study for the Handley Page Manx, which would be built in 1939 (but would not fly until some years later).

The larger craft was a transport/bomber of which one example was serialled WT715. It was more futuristic still with its twin, streamlined fuselages and Dunne-like tailless wing with swept outer sections, strongly resembling the wing on the last of the Pterodactyls.

They were brewed up with the help of the colourful Nigel Tangye as "aeronautical consultant". But correspondence with Dunne's wife Cecily, some time after Dunne's death, reveals that Tangye was only a go-between. Well-known aviation artist and illustrator Stanley Orton Bradshaw created a set of watercolur paintings of "a variety of futuristic aircraft" (he also, incidentally, illustrated some of the Biggles books). Tangye took Bradshaw's designs to Wells and Korda, who picked the best of them. Bradshaw was evidently well up with the Dunne/Hill heritage as well as current trends in high-performance aircraft design. A third design to catch Wells' eye was a gyroplane, clearly influenced by the recent work of Juan de la Cierva, but not wholly alien to the rotor aeroplanes that Dunne had been working on when Wells first met him. (The Westland company, who had built Hill's Pterodactyls, were also building experimental Cierva cabin autogyos. It is a small world.) It seems safe to assume that Wells made sure his old friend's heritage came through in the film.

For Wells had yet another debt to pay Dunne: his future history had borrowed heavily from a screenplay that Dunne had sent him many years before.

British Legion Arrowplane

The British Legion Arrowplane was a toy chuck-glider made and sold to raise funds by members of the British Legion, who were all ex-soldiers disabled during their service. Made of balsa wood and painted silver it was a lightly swept, slender and tapered flying wing. It came in a cardboard box, complete with instruction sheet. Dunne was of course himself an invalid ex-soldier and the Arrowplane features his tailless swept wing, though not its subtle curves. Dunne kept one, but I do not know why he did so. Nor do I know when it appeared, whether prewar or postwar. Might he have had a hand in its inception? I would love to hear from anybody who knows more about it.

WWII revival

When war again broke out, Dunne felt that he had to drop his philosophical writings and revive his aeronautical talents for the war effort. He alluded to the project in his posthumous autobiographical account of his prophetic dreams but gave no details. For two years or so he experimented with three models of recognisably Dunne/Hill extraction - both his notes and the models survive, showing him working towards a D.12 design (another one nobody ever dreamed existed). The models were larger and heavier than his old ones at around 9" span and they flew a lot faster. He launched them across a large hall in his brother-in-law's castle home to be caught by the drapes at the far end.

Dunne felt ready to return fully to the fray towards the end of 1940. He was well versed in the levers of power - and needed to be, for by WWII he had been out of mainstream aeronautical work for a quarter of a century and his connections were going rusty. His lobbying through a combination of official and social channels was - and still is - exactly the kind of thing one does in order to catch the ears of power. First on his list was Lord Beaverbrook, whom Churchill had put in charge of manufacturing industry. That move was abortive but did drag in a couple of Ministries, whom friends and allies in high places lobbied on his behalf.

That he was eventually taken seriously enough to be offered a slot in the National Physics Laboratory wind tunnel is astonishing, despite the high-profile lobbying which supported him. The nation was, after all, in the middle of a desperate war. It is hard to say, but my best guess is that his claims of amazing performance chimed closely with those made for laminar flow around that time, a principle which helped give the North American P-51 Mustang its outstanding performance. The later Tailless Aircraft Advisory Committee would be much taken with the idea of a laminar-flow swept wing.

In an extraordinary letter to Peter Masefield, a journalist with The Aeroplane magazine, Dunne explains how he is working in secret on a new design and asks that, as a propaganda smokescreen, he be treated as some pedantic old has-been whose designs never amounted to anything. Writing at the end of 1941 he knew that both Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf were working on tailless designs and he did not want them to know that he himself was back in the game, for the Germans had a great deal of respect for his work. The British knew in surprisingly detailed terms much of what the Germans were developing in WWII and published it with delight. Dunne kept an extensive collection of press clippings and magazine articles. Back in 1913 a major effort attempt had indeed been mounted to tempt him over to Lohner, and his reputation in Germany remained high. I don't know what he thought would happen if the Nazis got wind of his latest scheme - he knew as well as anyone that Lippisch was ten years ahead and busy ripening the fruits for Messerschmitt - soon the world's first tailless swept-wing fighter, the rocket-powered Me 263 Komet, would join the air war. The 14th November 1941 edition of The Aeroplane carried an article on "Tailless Evolution" and recounted Dunne's pioneering work. Whatever the reality behind his fears, the journal duly complied with his request and painted him as a historical has-been. This may go some way to explaining the myth of his insignificance, still commonly believed today.

Partial drawings of two full-size designs survive. Several are studies of a ca. 66 ft span wing of which one shows a scrap view of a "bubble canopy" cockpit (undated but the bubble canopy is the giveaway). It is probably a fast, high-altitude unarmed reconnaissance type, or possibly a light bomber. The other design is a little more complete and evidently a smaller craft, probably a high-altitude fighter. It is very Northrop/Lippisch in style (two designers who had followed in his footsteps, paralleling Hill respectively in Germany and America). It has a pusher prop but was probably designed with a jet-powered development in mind. Sadly, his illness got the better of his drawing board and even the NPL model never made it home.

The Tailless Aircraft Advisory Committee

All this opens the possibility that he remained influential right up until his health finally stopped him in 1943. A man to whom a frantic Ministry in wartime writes to apologise, whose 1943 design closely foreshadows the lines of the DH.108, and who was still corresponding personally with Geoffrey de Havilland Sr. over the finer points of tailless jet aircraft in 1946, cannot casually be dismissed. How much of a coincidence can it be that, just around the time that Dunne gave up through crippling illness, the Tailless Aircraft Advisory Committee came into being? Did someone in the Ministry suddenly perceive a gap opening up that needed to be filled? Can it be that all those British tailless wonders and flying wings of the early postwar years owed their existence to his brief return to the fray? I have found no direct evidence linking the formation of the TAAC to Dunne's previous lobbying and dropping out. The timing within the Ministry remains a tantalising coincidence, we may never know.

What we can say is that, while Germans such as Lippisch and the Horten brothers got on with building operational tailless and flying wing types and the Americans encouraged Northrop with some experimental prototypes, the British sat around talking about it, setting up the TAAC to generate proposals and sending their one remaining expert, GTR Hill, off to Canada so he couldn't join in. Another expert, Handley Page's Gustav Lachmann, was already incarcerated on the Isle of Man as an enemy national. Research prototype work was instead awarded to GAL, which would result in one of the worst-behaving aeroplanes ever recorded.

The Committee's records, many of them marked SECRET, are preserved in the National Archive at Kew. As ever, what little we know (chiefly from Sturtivant's British Research and Development Aircraft) is incomplete, sometimes misleading or even wrong. For example Saro and de Havilland did not decline to take part, they were not invited to start with because they were not at the time involved in tailless work. The SBAC merely canvassed their opinions, and they wished the venture well. The TAAC's work covered many things. Besides drawing together and coordinating the existing fragmentary work in Britain and commissioning new research, it held a watching brief on all the known tailless projects around the world. Its scope rapidly expanded to include laminar-flow (aka "low-drag") wings and in due course delta wings and jet power. It was they who sent a party out to Göttingen in 1945, to interview the Hortens and other researchers there. Once the "swept-wing Vampire", a neat little jet in the Dunne tradition, was getting underway after the war, DH were invited to join - to great effect, as described below. By 1948 the tailless remit had run its course and the high-speed swept-wing programme was expanded to include tailed types: the TAAC morphed into a new Committee more directly concerned with high-speed flight in all its forms.

Dunne and de Havilland

The tale of Dunne and de Havilland is an extraordinary and poignant one, not wholly aeronautical. Here I tell how de Havilland developed a Dunne machine shortly after the war. Essentially a tailless swept-wing Vampire, it was designated the DH.108 and unofficially named the Swallow. During its development DH would tease his younger staff working on project, that Dunne had done it all decades before and made it work, so they had better get it right too. Dunne was still in touch with him in 1946, commenting on the possibilities opened up by the Vampire's wing-root intakes. When the first example TG283 flew, DH personally sent Dunne a photograph.

The DH.108 turned out to be dangerous and all three machines built killed their pilots, one being de Havilland's own son. Because of this the British developed a permanent mistrust of tailless machines. But this was unjustified. The DH.108 was designed to fly in the transonic regime which only a handful of German and American types had yet been able to reach. Many of these types suffered from control flutter, a sharp banging to and fro as sonic shock waves came and went, rapidly flexing the wing to create enormous oscillatory forces and banging the pilot's head about. In fact, the pilot was most likely to be killed by breaking his neck when the flutter began and the plane lashed violently to and fro, whacking his head against the canopy seconds before the plane broke up. But nobody knew the root cause yet, all they knew of were a few unexplained accidents or occurrences of flutter.

The great test pilot Eric "Winkle" Brown survived his encounter with the DH.108 because on a hunch he lowered the seat to the minimum so that his head was close to the canopy rail and when the oscillations began his head could hardly move and he didn't break his neck but was able to recover the aircraft by cutting the throttle, loosening his grip on the controls and letting its inherent stability re-establish itself. Proof positive that this little Dunne-inspired hot rod was by nature tame as a kitten until it entered the uncharted and deadly transonic zone. For those interested in his account of the DH.108 Swallow, he gave at least two:

When the DH.108 went out of control it had nothing to do with the basic aerodynamic design. All that was needed, as introduced on all later craft, was a more robust control system and stiffer wings to cope with the forces unleashed by transonic speeds.

Why were Brown and his colleagues prepared to give their lives to this lethal toy? Because its test data was supremely significant. Stewart Muller-Rowland succeeded Brown and, not being as canny with the seat height, paid for it with his life. Imagine the motivation of the last pilot, "Jumbo" Genders, climbing into a twice-killer cockpit in full knowledge, just to gather still more of that precious data. The wings had been strengthened, but nobody knew whether it would be enough. DH struggled with his own conscience before letting him, but the compelling importance of the machine won the day. But the strengthening turned out not to have been enough.

The DH.108 was one of the very first machines capable of going supersonic, be it only in an uncontrolled dive, a distinction which the DH.108 achieved twice. Its test data, so dearly paid for, laid the foundations of British swept-wing design for many years to come. Not bad for Dunne's design concept written off as "too slow" back in 1913.

Updated 8 June 2019