|Cover Story||October 7th, 2010|
Author's note: When I first heard the tale of this man I didn't believe it. Years later, I stumbled across it again and began some research which concluded with this story. After proofreading it, the tale still seems unbelievable. I would expect you, the reader, to assume I had suffered a serious head injury and made the whole thing up. I did not. The man was real, what is known factually about him is real, but for reasons which I shall explain, even history itself is confused about many of his claims. In order for you to discover the following story is factual, I have arranged with Lyle Davis, your handsome and talented publisher, to provide a series of reference works and Internet addresses at the end of this article. Often Lyle or I get a few questions about a story, and after reading what I had written I shuddered at the thought of trying to answer even the questions I still have about this gentleman, let alone those of a large readership. Should you read several of the items in this small bibliography you will see they're often contradictory, puzzling, and at some point, maddening. This is the historical trail left, apparently on purpose, by my subject.
The 20th Century had more than its fair share of frauds, hoaxers, and scammers. From the discovery of the “Piltdown Man,” the faked skull of an ancient human planted in a British gravel pit in 1912, to 1995's memorable “alien autopsy film,” which was revealed as a hoax in 2006, that century probably produced more audacious rip-off artists than any other. But one of its most astoundingly brazen liars, imposters, and lunatics has almost been forgotten, swept under the rug of history. Almost ... but not quite.
Dr. William Whitney Christmas seemed to have come out of nowhere. He claimed to have attended St. John's Military Academy, studied at the University of Virginia and George Washington University, and obtained a degree to practice medicine. Some historians have cast doubt on him ever actually having had a medical degree, saying if he did he probably got it through mail order.
Dr. Christmas, according to his own testimony, left his practice—if he ever had one—and became interested in aviation shortly after the Wright brothers' first flights. He claimed to have made a “powered aeroplane” flight in an aircraft of his own design in 1908, but for a hundred years no proof of this has ever been found. Most likely it was a flight taken only in his imagination. When asked where this early plane was stored, he modified his story and claimed to have crashed it into a tree, then burned it to keep his innovative aeronautical designs a secret. Christmas stood by the story. After some time, he may have even began to believe it was true. He claimed to have formed the Christmas Aeroplane Company in 1914, and historians even argue about this. You see, there are several turns in the strange and devious saga of Dr. Christmas which would lead the casual observer to the conclusion he was of unsound mind. Nuts, in other words. But if he was crazy, he was crazy like a fox.
Regardless of his grip on sanity, Dr. Christmas claimed to built and flown two airplanes, the “Red Bird” and the “Red Bird II.” Amazingly, he was awarded a few patents for the plane. The reason he got the patents on the aircraft was simply because he beat the group who actually designed the original plane, the AEA, to the patent office. That's right—he stole the drawings for their aircraft somehow, and rushed through the patents to make them his own. And yet there is no evidence that either of the Red Bird planes were actually built, save for Christmas' incessant boasting about them.
With typical flourish and bluff, he explained to the press and public that he invented the aileron, the hinged surfaces on the ends of airplane wings that control roll, which was another lie. It's probable Dr. Christmas had no idea what they were for even when carting the AEA's drawings off to the patent office. Several companies involved in making the new flying machines all claimed to have developed the aileron at roughly the same time. Its first inventor remains unknown. But many in the press picked up on Dr. Christmas' wild claim and printed it. Word began to spread among the gullible that this man was an engineer of the finest quality.
The good Doctor seemed to have an intuitive knowledge of just how credulous and trusting the press, public, and most importantly the heads of industry could be. He not only spoke as a man of great authority (when he knew absolutely nothing about the subject), he made up staggeringly bold fables which the press, eager to print any news of the then-new aviation field, swallowed whole. Always quick to give an interview to any magazine or newspaper, Christmas worked hard to spread the rumor in 1914 that he had been offered one million dollars in gold to “completely rebuild” Germany's air force. It's now understood this was an attempt to twist the arm of the U.S. Army into taking interest in his designs. But it didn't work. The Army didn't bite. And no one in Germany had ever heard of the erratic Dr. Christmas.
Undaunted, on December 5th 1915, Christmas took out a large advertisement in the New York Times (which he wrote himself) singing the praises of the revolutionary Christmas Aeroplane Company. It reads like a man who was seriously drunk when he sat down to write, and kept hitting the bottle hard until he was done. His first claim, made out of whole cloth, was that the Allies in Europe had just closed a deal with his company for eleven aerial “battle cruisers,” each costing over one hundred thousand dollars. Probably the only true line in the entire fabrication was that they were “of a hitherto undreamed-of capacity.”
Indeed. The monstrosities he went on to describe were roughly the size of a 747, covered in armor plating, armed with a confusing number of machine guns, and sporting two 14-inch diameter cannons. (See drawing on Page 1).
As his mendacious yarn continued, the “battle cruisers” suddenly became flying “Class B battleship cruisers” equipped with two pilot stations, each with two sets of controls, and in the unlikely event that both pilots were killed, “the automatic mechanical control would be immediately set in motion and the machine would be steered back to its starting point.” He made no mention of it landing itself. As you will see, Dr. Christmas had problems with successful aircraft landings.
Towards the end of this deranged composition he went on to envision fleets of these imaginary aircraft roaming over Europe, destroying everything in sight. Whatever his other faults, the man had an active imagination. Shortly after writing this near-psychotic fairy tale, he tried to sell the Army on the idea that he was capable of designing an aircraft to fly into Germany and kidnap Kaiser Wilhelm!
The Army didn't buy that one either.
Not long after this, he came up with a scheme that defies imagination. Today, he'd be arrested on the spot for fraud, but we must remember that hardly a soul in the public then knew the slightest factual information about the newfangled flying machines. Also, with the Great War in progress, air power was coming into extreme importance. Seeing America starting to write out multimillion dollar contracts for all sorts of military equipment, Dr. Christmas decided to dip his hand into the apparently bottomless till. He made inquiries, did his homework, and boldly approached two wealthy brothers, Alfred and Henry McCrory, owners of a New York brokerage firm.
Dr. Christmas spun a mad tale of having the design for a scout aircraft that could fly rings around anything in the German inventory. It would be faster, more nimble, have a higher ceiling, and would eventually become the basis for all aircraft designs in the future. With a straight face he explained to the gentlemen he had not only the aileron, but one hundred other patents for aeronautical devices and nearly two hundred other inventions, all of which was fiction. Carefully, he expressed to his backers that the complete design for this marvelous aircraft was filed away in his mind, as he was afraid to commit it to paper in order to save it from competitors, or worse, German secret agents.
Incredibly, the McCrory brothers agreed to finance two test aircraft. We might forgive them if they had been taken in by a pathological liar of the first degree and acted out of patriotism. But they also knew the government was shoveling out money, and wanted in on the ground floor of this breakthrough in aviation. They saw dollar signs too.
Christmas then proceeded with the next phase of his extravagant swindle. He went to the offices of the nearly-bankrupt Continental Aircraft Company, located in Amityville, Long Island, and commissioned them to build his revolutionary new airplane. Meanwhile, the McCrory Brokerage Firm was able to enlist the support of Senator James Wadsworth who eventually applied enough pressure on the Army to loan Dr. Christmas one of their famed Liberty aircraft engines, a near impossibility during wartime. The Army did so with the express understanding that the Liberty was to be used for ground tests only. They also added the caveat that U.S. Army representatives were to inspect and test the airplane before any flight.
Even though they were desperate for business, the bewildered Continental Aircraft Company had grave hesitations about building the plane that Dr. Christmas described (he still had no drawings or blueprints). His description of the plane simply broke every rule known to current aviation.
Take a look at any biplane. You'll notice the network of struts and wires holding the two wings together. The reason for this is simple—without them the wings would twist and warp and eventually rip off of the fuselage. And yet, Dr. Christmas was proposing a strutless biplane because it was his intention that the wings flap like a bird's! Also, in that era of fabric-covered aircraft Christmas was insistent on making the plane out of solid, laminated wood and steel, vastly adding to its weight.
Lacking in draftsman's skills as much as aviation theory, Christmas called upon Continental's chief engineer, Vincent Burnelli, to draw up the construction plans under his direction. (Burnelli spent the rest of his life swearing he personally had only designed the fuselage.) Burnelli was also concerned because the cash-strapped Continental company intended to build the plane out of whatever scrounged wood was available and steel that was not aviation-grade. To his credit, he tried repeatedly to insert changes, always to no avail.
The Great War ended in November, 1918, just a month short of the completion of Christmas' extraordinary-looking aircraft. It was called the “Bullet,” for some unfathomable reason, and the Doctor had the mechanics install the loaned Liberty engine in the plane. Despite the Army's stern warnings, he began looking for a test pilot. No one at the Continental Company wanted to fly it. After the war there were many unemployed pilots, yet one by one they applied for the job only to walk away shaking their heads after taking their first look at the Christmas Bullet.
Eventually, a pilot desperate enough (or stupid enough) came along. On December 30, 1918, Cuthbert Mills climbed into the cockpit and fired up the Liberty engine. The Christmas Bullet taxied well enough, and Mills throttled it forward and eased back on the stick. The Bullet lifted off, gaining altitude and speed. In moments the wings began wobbling crazily. Their gyrations quickly made the aircraft uncontrollable, but soon this was no longer a concern as the top wing ripped completely away from the Bullet and the bottom wings broke off an instant later. Mills hadn't gained enough altitude to use his parachute and with the powerful Liberty engine still roaring, the Bullet nosed over and augured into the ground, killing Mills instantly and destroying the Liberty engine and what was left of the Bullet.
Not only did he hide the destruction of their engine, Christmas had the audacity to go back to the Army in March, 1919, and ask for a new propeller! The second Bullet was finished, this time with a less powerful civilian engine. Working quickly, Christmas had it shipped to Madison Square Garden for display at the great Aeronautical Exhibition taking place at the time. The new propeller arrived just in time to be slapped on for the show.
Dr. Christmas' financial backers—by now there were several—wandered through the crowd at Madison Square Garden telling of the many successful flight tests of the Bullet and emphasizing its phenomenal speed. In all probability they were coached on what to say by Christmas himself and to be wary of any Army officers they came across. Despite the best efforts of Dr. Christmas and his minions, and the large posters around the plane giving completely false flight characteristics (“the safest, easiest controlled plane in the world!”) and claiming world-record speeds, not one single order was taken. There were too many real aeronautical engineers present, and they no doubt gave their professional opinions on the awkward biplane, its strutless wings, and the peculiar fuselage that looked like a cross between an old bathtub and a wedge of cheese.
This second Christmas Bullet was removed after the indoor air show and taken to a muddy airfield while the Doctor sought yet another pilot to fly it. Completely disregarding the disastrous results of the first test flight and the death of poor Cuthbert Mills, he made absolutely no design alterations or modifications. The only difference in this airplane was that it was less powerful than the original. The Army still had no idea Christmas had destroyed their precious engine and somehow (history does not tell us the particulars) he managed to cover up the crash just weeks before.
Christmas changed the name of his (perhaps imaginary) aircraft firm to The Cantilever Aero Company, possibly to avoid legal entanglements. While still seeking another pilot willing to fly his contraption, he took out a full page ad in the March, 1919 issue of “Flying” magazine that remains simply staggering to behold. An artist depicts a lonely mining camp in rugged, mountainous territory, a rustic log cabin in the background and sitting before it a Christmas Bullet being loaded with burlap sacks of ore. “SAFETY SPEED PERFORMANCE” shouts the headline. The rambling text, no doubt written by Christmas himself, beggars the imagination. He lists several industries that require travel over dangerous landscapes, then practically howls:
“IN A SHORT WHILE THE AEROPLANE WILL BE USED FOR ALL COMMERCIAL PURPOSES but it is ready now to answer the call of these industries already mentioned.
“THE CHRISTMAS BULLET IS A FLEXIBLE WING AEROPLANE which permits it to take off in a small space at a low speed and land under similar conditions. It is also automatically stable and easily controlled, although its speed range is up to two hundred miles per hour.”
This ad appeared just three months after the devastating crash of the first Bullet. But warming to his work, the advertisement continues on with even greater prevarications:
“THE CANTILEVER AERO CO. IS READY TO CONSTRUCT AEROPLANES SUITABLE FOR ANY BUSINESS DEMANDS from the small, high speed Christmas Bullet scout to the large, high powered, high speed, heavy weight carrying TRANS-CONTINENTAL or TRANS-OCEANIC FLIER.”
Clearly, Dr. Christmas had even greater things in mind. Or so he claimed.
Soon, Christmas found a second luckless pilot named Allington Joyce Jolly, a former lieutenant in the Army Air Corps. He examined the aircraft, tested its controls, and listened carefully as the Doctor explained that the wings were designed to flap, giving the Bullet unparalleled maneuverability and that at high speeds they would straighten out and remain firm due to air pressure. On May 1, 1919 the second Christmas Bullet soared into the sky and once again the flimsy wings twisted off the fuselage, this time dropping the wreck vertically into a barn. The Bullet was a total loss, the barn demolished, and Lt. Jolly was buried in Cropsey, Illinois. Dr. Christmas had only been successful at one thing. He had made the world's first completely unsurvivable aircraft. The Bullet would hold together just long enough to gain sufficient altitude to kill whoever flew one, but could not stay intact for them to reach an altitude where escape by parachute was possible.
He never built another airplane, but continued his strident advertising campaign which kept him in the public eye and his financial backers intact. No one knows how many people he conned for money, or the amount of wealth he gathered. His unblushing insolence even led him to testify before Congress, holding hearings on aviation affairs, saying that his Bullets were “the fastest, safest, and most efficient airplanes on Earth.” He also boasted during the hearing that he was “being swamped by orders from Europe” when, in fact, there were no orders. There were no longer any Bullets for that matter, but none of this slowed Dr. Christmas. In 1923 the Doctor claimed the Army paid him one hundred thousand dollars for the patent rights to the alieron—which he had stolen years before. Again, historical records are conflicting on this far-fetched assertion. It borders very closely on the mere ravings of a megalomaniac, but some sources say the Army actually paid the bill while others point out that the only “proof” was Dr. Christmas bragging about it to the press.
In the August, 1929 issue of “Popular Mechanics,” Christmas gave a long and fanciful interview to writer Myron M. Stearns. The accompanying photograph of the Doctor shows him as a husky middle-aged man, squared-jawed, determined expression, slightly balding, and wearing round pince-nez glasses and a stiff celluloid collar. He looked like a judge or professor, certainly he gave the appearance of scholarly wisdom. And of course, almost every word he said was a falsehood. The magazine also printed photos of the Bullet (taken before the last one crashed, of course) and several earlier aircraft Christmas claimed to have designed and built. Interestingly, one of these may be the AEA biplane from which the Doctor stole the designs.
The interview was probably the closest thing to a biography of Dr. William Christmas ever written. It's shamelessly boastful, spotted from beginning to end with lies, but it does give one a glimpse of how the Doctor became fixated on the idea of flexible wings. “Once he tried filling a bird's wing feathers with glue, keeping it until it hardened, to see if the bird could fly with rigid wing surfaces. It could not, and in making the effort, it actually tore its breast muscles loose and died.”
This was the epiphany that led to the development of the Christmas Bullet. Or so he claimed.
Christmas rambled on at great length, telling about the many aircraft he claimed to have invented, giving a strange tale about being hunted by assassins, claiming to hold the world speed record for aviation, all manner of ridiculous yarns. He waxed eloquently about his new giant airplane, which he called a “flying wing” even though it had two fuselages connecting to a huge tail surface. As was his habit, the more he talked, the greater the lies became. He calmly stated that his next airplane would have a two hundred foot wingspan, a main dining salon forty feet long and seventeen feet wide, and be powered by six 1,500 horsepower engines spinning propellers twenty feet across.
And this was his swan song. After giving the “Popular Mechanics” interview, he seems to have simply vanished from the face of the earth. There appears to be no further public record of him until his death. He may have felt justice was but one step behind him, he may have simply taken the money and ran. The aviation historian Bill Yenne gave his eulogy for the bizarre Doctor and no other could top it.
“Dr. William Christmas died quietly in 1960 at age 94 with money in his pockets and blood on his hands. His was the kind of tale they used to write folk songs about.”
About the Author: Kent Ballard is a masterful writer who lives near Brazil, Indiana. While he made his living as a Journeyman Machinist for many years, he also fascinated a small group of writer friends with his tales of history, adventure, and of the military.
There will be more adventure stories from Kent Ballard. We can’t wait to read them . . . and we know you’ll enjoy his work as much as we do.
He lives on a large, wooded estate with his beautiful wife, Tess, a pack of dogs, a fishing pond, and trees. Lots of trees.
A prolific writer, you’ll be reading much more of Mr. Ballard. Soon. It’s guaranteed he’ll bring out your emotions. Enjoy!
Bibliography: For those who would like to read more about this subject, we offer the following website links: