North Carolina Centennial of Flight

William Christmas

Dr. William Wallace Whitney Christmas had an exceptional career as a North Carolina aeronaut. Born in Warrenton in 1865, Christmas began in childhood to study bird flight and experiment with kites. His fascination with flying grew. Christmas constructed larger, more complicated kites, and finally, gliders. In 1905 he flew a glider in a public exhibition at the Washington Monument.

After his success with the glider, Christmas set out to build a powered plane. In 1908, he finished the Red Bird I, the first plane whose wings used inset ailerons . Christmas applied for a patent on the hinged aileron in 1910. His biplane was powered by a homemade, two-cylinder, fifteen-horsepower motor. Christmas claims to have flown the plane several times, which, if true, made him the first American after the Wrights to build and fly a powered airplane. The factuality of this claim is a source of speculation for air historians. Nevertheless, the aeronaut stepped further into the limelight when he founded the Christmas Aeroplane Company and successfully completed two more biplanes.

ailerons

hinged wing sections that help control roll.

biplane

An airplane having two pairs of wings fixed at different levels.

When the Grand Central Palace Exhibition was scheduled to take place in New York City in May 1912, Christmas was presented with a promising deal by the U.S. Post Office. His biplane, the Red Bird III would carry the first airmail from Long Island to Washington, D.C. On June 6, 1912, pilot Clinton O. Hadley took off in the Red Bird III but, before flying to Washington, he decided to attempt a flight endurance record. He had been airborne for 185 miles when the engine died and Hadley glided to a safe landing. Inspection of the plane revealed sabotage, and the post office cancelled its contract with Christmas.

Christmas resurfaced in 1915 when he presented aircraft designs to the military. His warplanes would be the largest heavier-than-air crafts ever built, powered by a 1,600 horsepower motor, and able to carry bombs and other ammunition, in addition to a six-person crew. He baited the U.S. Army by announcing that the European Allies had already ordered eleven of his Battle-Cruisers, but the military was skeptical because of the inventor's shadowy past. None of Christmas's warplanes were ever sold, and his deal with the European Allies turned out to be a hoax.

In 1917, Christmas bought the Continental Aircraft Company, and began working with engineer Vincent Burnelli to build a pursuit plane for the military. Called the Bullet, it was designed to have flexible wings and to reach speeds of over two hundred miles an hour. The plane would be perfect for wartime, and Christmas received ample support both in finances and production. The war had ended when the Bullet was finally ready to fly. In December 1918, Christmas's supporters described the test flights as huge successes. The plane supposedly reached a speed of 190 miles per hour before it came to a safe landing. In reality, the first test flight was a disaster. The Bullet's wings came off and the pilot, veteran Cuthbert Mills, crashed and died. Two subsequent test flights yielded similar wing malfunctions; the Bullet was now responsible for two deaths. Nevertheless, William Christmas loudly praised the Bullet's so-called world record speed of 222 miles per hour. Somehow, the Bullet's damage was kept quiet, and Christmas seemed unscathed by its failure.

In 1960, Christmas died in New York City. The creative genius from North Carolina was the mastermind behind approximately three hundred inventions and lived one of the most fantastic and notable lives in aviation history.