Simanaitis Says

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WE’D CALL them “flying wings,” but the first of their type were termed “tailless aeroplanes.” British Lieutenant John William Dunne, ex-His Majesty’s Wiltshire Regiment, experimented with a tailless glider in 1906. By 1910, the Dunne D.5 was demonstrating tailless powered flight that was inherently stable. Before long, his designs were licensed by both the French and Americans.

Who was this guy? What about these flying wings?


John William Dunne, 1875-1949, pioneer aviator, aeronautical engineer, later, author in the field of parapsychology. Image from Milestones of the Air, Jane’s 100 Significant Aircraft, by John W.R. Taylor and H.F. King, McGraw-Hill, 1969. This and other books cited here are listed at and

John Dunne came from Anglo-Irish aristocrats. His early interests in flight arose from Jules Verne stories and, curiously enough, from Alsomitra macrocarpa, a Javanese member of the cucumber family.

The seed of the Javan cucumber, also known as the zanonia, is swept-winged and displays an inherent stability when dispersed by the wind.


The winged seed of the Javan cucumber has inspired aerodynamic research. Image by Scott Zona.

In fact, in 1987, researchers at the University of Tokyo published “Flight of a samara, Alsomitra macrocarpa,” a technical paper on the subject (

Dunne sought inherent stability in his aeroplane designs, a feature not universally accepted in pioneer aviation. In fact, for example, the Wrights chose maneuverability over stability—and their aeroplanes displayed this, sometimes to a fault.

Dunne’s 1907 tailless glider was built for the British War Office; its flights in Scotland were done in secret. Even Dunne admitted his initial powered version in 1908 was “more of a hopper than a flier.”

Development during 1909 led to the D.5, which exhibited decidedly more than hopping in 1910 above Eastchurch, England.


Dunne D.5, 1910. Image from The Pocket Encyclopedia of World Aircraft in Color: Pioneer Aircraft 1903-14, by Kenneth Munson, illustrated by John W. Wood, Macmillian, 1969.

The D.5 demonstrated its capabilities by flying in a 20-mph wind, completely without the pilot’s corrective input, with an observer of the Royal Aero Club as passenger.


Dunne D.8, 1912. Image from Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1913, edited by Fred T. Jane, reprint, Arco Publishing, 1969.

In 1912, Dunne’s D.8 flew from Eastchurch, on the River Thames about 50 miles east of London, across the Channel, on to Paris and then to Villacoublay airfield southwest of the city.


Dunne D.8, 1912. Images from Jane’s Historical Aircraft from 1902 to 1916, edited by Fred T. Jane, facsimile reprint, Doubleday & Co., 1973.

At Villacoublay, Commandant Félix of the French Army demonstrated again the Dunne’s aerial stability, this time while he walked out on its wing. Word quickly got around and attracted the interest of American aircraft builder W. Starling Burgess of Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Built under license, the Burgess-Dunnes were 2-seat float planes. One became Canada’s first military aircraft.


U.S. Navy Burgess-Dunne AH-7 float plane, 1914. Image from Pioneer Aircraft 1903-14.

All of the Dunnes were fairly large aircraft, with spans of 46 or 47 ft. (A modern Cessna 172’s span is 36 ft.) Power steadily increased from the D.5’s 60-hp Green inline 4-cylinder to the D.8’s 80-hp Gnome 7-cylinder rotary to the Burgess-Dunne AH-7’s 90-hp Curtiss V-8.

Typical of the era, all had airframes of wood and steel tube. The central nacelle was covered in plywood; the wings, in unbleached linen.

Health problems during World War I forced Dunne to retire from flying and, largely, from aeronautical matters in general.

Though the efficacy of tailless designs was realized, flying wings became a little-developed branch of aircraft. The 1920s’ Westland Pterodactyl, which Dunne helped design, the 1940s’ Northrup Flying Wings and today’s stealth aircraft are among the exceptions.

Dunne lived to the age of 73. For all of his life, he believed in a form of precognition, the ability to see the future in dreams. He wrote several books on the matter, including An Experiment in Time (1927). ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

3 comments on “DUNNE FLYING WINGS

  1. Grey McGown
    August 1, 2016

    Try to borrow a copy of Starling Burgess bio No Ordinary Being..he was selling
    flyiing wings to Canada in 1913…but he is most remembered for his magnificent
    J Class sloop, Ranger

    • Todd Millions
      October 29, 2019

      Hired by Buckminister Fuller for his Car project. Was the ‘test pilot’ for that one too.
      I think he sold his wing to the Canadian expeditionary force in 1914. Good selection and No one knew what to do with it. A potent portent. Perhaps Dunne foresaw this?
      Starling may have shorted the can of staring ether . But I’m sure he would have left it too the Canadian (embryonic) airforce to supply their own little girls unmentionables ‘speed suits’. Would that have being a vision Dunne didn’t want to record? If so a Commendable Good choice!
      I have relatives who were CAF officers. They were ashamed of it by the mid 1960’s- over Treason. Which is now also a tradition.

  2. Clive Rigby
    January 30, 2021

    I very much enjoy your essays and accompanying illustrations
    Thank you and Please keep up the good work

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This entry was posted on October 15, 2013 by in Vintage Aero and tagged , , , .
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