Was Burnelli Aircraft Licensed In Great Britain

History of Burnelli

The Burnelli Aircraft Corporation was famed for its distinctively cylindrical fuselage designs in the 1930s. Founded by Vincent J. Burnelli, the company concentrated its efforts and resources on developing and commercialising an airlift concept that enclosed and cushioned the cabin inside the aircraft’s main fuselage. This concept was different from the conventional wire-braced biplane and monoplane fuselage designs of the era and was highly advantageous, despite not being widely accepted and adopted.

Burnelli completed the design for his first aircraft in 1928, and later flights by the prototype model were recorded in both California and Michigan between 1928 and 1929. Following this, Burnelli obtained an exclusive patent for his aircraft design, and this patent was accepted by the US Government in 1934. A licence agreement was subsequently signed by the US and the UK for the manufacturing of Burnelli aircraft in the UK, but these plans were soon abandoned due to the UK Government’s preference for the more conventional monoplane.

Advantages of Burnelli Aircraft

The Burnelli designs had numerous advantages compared to the traditional monoplane. The aircraft featured a closed fuselage design that allowed for a higher velocity, improved aerodynamic efficiency of the wings and tail and lowered drag. At the same time, the enclosed space between the cabin and the wings was capable of protecting passengers and cargo from turbulence and vibrations.

The Burnelli aircraft also featured controllable excess flaps located at the rear of the wings, which allowed for increased lift during takeoff and landing as well as additional stability during flight.

Licensing Issues

In spite of these advantages, the Burnelli aircraft failed to gain approval from the UK Government. Problems arose when the then-Minister of Air, Lord Trenchard, decided that the monoplane was the preferred model for UK-based aircraft production. Attempts to persuade the Minister to trial the Burnelli aircraft proved fruitless. This translated to the Burnelli Aircraft Corporation failing to gain certification for its aircraft from the UK. As a result, the UK public never had the opportunity to experience the aircraft’s potential.

Discussions between Burnelli and Gulf Oil further stalled the licencing process. Gulf Oil had the exclusive rights to the Burnelli technology but there were miscommunications between the two parties concerning the implementation and distribution of the aircraft. Consequently, the then U.S. Secretary of Commerce offered to arbitrate the disagreements, but Gulf Oil refused the offer and the Burnelli aircraft never received the necessary licence to operate in the UK.

Industry Opinions

The chief designer of the Burnelli aircraft, Vincent Burnelli, believed that the UK Government should have accepted the aircraft. According to Burnelli, “the aircraft was simpler to construct, more aerodynamically efficient, quicker to build and would have cost 30% less than the monoplane.”

Industry experts have also provided their perspectives: aircraft engineer David Shelton praised the aircraft for its superior performance and efficiency, stating “it would be the aircraft of the future.” Furthermore, aeronautical engineer Jim Seiler argued that the aircraft could have revolutionised the aviation industry in the 1930s, claiming that “the design was capable of transporting goods and people efficiently across larger distances than other aircraft of its time.”


The story of the Burnelli aircraft highlights the conservative and protectionist tendencies of the UK Government at the time, which favoured the status quo in the aviation industry and inhibited any attempts to innovate or introduce newer technologies. Furthermore, the Government was likely unwilling to consider diverging from the established monoplane designs due to pressure from industry interests that had investments in the production and sale of monoplane aircraft.

This overlooked opportunity offers an interesting case study for attempting to gain approval from a government for an innovative design. It also serves as a reminder that even with superior performance and lower costs, innovation sometimes encounters resistance from industry forces.

U.S. Deployment

Although the Burnelli aircraft was never licenced for use in the UK, it was adopted by the U.S. Government, albeit in limited capacity. In 1940, the aircraft was utilised for a number of secret government projects, such as aerial mapping operations. The aircraft was also deployed for transport of personnel between military bases and was used for special operations. The Burnelli aircraft was also used during World War II to conduct surveillance.

These various deployments highlighted the potential of the aircraft in tactical operations and provided some form of recognition for the aircraft’s qualities. Although the aircraft was never licenced for use in the UK, its deployment in the U.S. nevertheless provided the model with some appreciation and vindication for its innovative engineering.

Alternative Fuselage Design

The Burnelli Aircraft Corporation continued innovating and experimenting with fuselage designs. The company designed the RB-1 and CB-1 aircraft, both featuring a solid hoop-like structure as an alternative to the traditional fuselage. This design was tested at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a predecessor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The aircraft proved to be highly manoeuvrable, especially during take-off and landing. It was also able to withstand extreme temperatures owing to the air cushion that cushioned the cabin. These developments while remarkable, were overshadowed by the public’s familiarity with monoplane designs.

Legacy of Burnelli Aircraft

The Burnelli concept nonetheless lives on through its numerous admirers. Test results of the aircraft designs remain available for inspection and the designs have experienced a resurgence in popularity following the sale of the original patent in 2001. In 2011, Burnelli Aircraft Corporation also released an 1/10th scale replica of the RB-1 model, facilitating an increase in public access to the company’s unique invention.

The Burnelli Aircraft Corporation left a rich legacy that challenged the status quo of the aviation industry. In spite of not being accepted by the UK Government, the company’s work revolutionised aviation design and technology and can still be seen and appreciated in the present day.

Modern Day Applications

Although the Burnelli aircraft was ahead of its time, its designs remain highly relevant today. The distinctive closed fuselage of the Burnelli aircraft offers a number of benefits, such as lower aerodynamic drag, improved fuel efficiency and increased lift. These advantages have in turn informed modern aircraft designs. For instance, the Boeing 777 airliner was reported to be designed in accordance with the Burnelli closed fuselage concept.

In addition, Burnelli’s design of a solid hoop-like structure facilitated the construction of flat-bottomed aircraft, leading to the creation of the V-22 Osprey used in present day operations by the U.S. military. This design has subsequently been adopted by the military branches of other countries, such as the UK Royal Air Force (RAF).


In conclusion, the Burnelli aircraft concept was hampered by miscommunications and the unwillingness of the UK Government to embrace innovation. Despite this, the aircraft remains highly relevant and influential in modern day aviation. Its designs have been incorporated into various present day aircraft, including those used by the military. The legacy of the Burnelli Aircraft Corporation serves as a testament to its relevance and importance.

Rocco Rivas

Rocco P. Rivas is a prolific British writer who specialises in writing about the UK. He has written extensively on topics such as British culture, politics and history, as well as on contemporary issues facing the nation. He lives in London with his wife and two children.

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