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The Bonney Gull

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Published on Aug 20, 2007

During 1911, pioneer aviator W. Leonard Bonney of Long Island, New York, trained at the Wright School. He dreamed of building an airplane with the grace and maneuverability of a seagull. He loved seagulls, so he studied and photographed them.

No doubt designing some of the bird's attributes into a powered aircraft was a daunting task, yet Bonney kept at it-refining his drawings and building many models; one was even tested in the wind tunnel at MIT. In 1926, at the age of 42, Bonney began to construct his "Gull." Its complicated subassemblies were built at the Kirkham Co. in Garden City, New York, and its engine was a 180hp Kirkham 9-cylinder radial. By the fall of 1927, the Gull was nearly complete. Although its airworthiness was questioned, Bonney had built an aircraft that, for its day, was unusually streamlined and had no exposed struts or wires. The aircraft's two-seat enclosed cockpit (also unusual then) had leather seats. Instead of a tailskid, Bonney used a steerable tailwheel in a streamlined fairing; the main wheels had independent brakes-all considered advanced features for the day.

One of Bonney's goals was to produce an aircraft that would be able to land within a relatively short distance. He designed a hydraulic mechanism that, on touchdown, allowed the pilot to pull a lever and rotate the wings about the main spar. This incidence change killed the lift and allowed the wing to act as a speed brake. Bonney might possibly have been able to change its dihedral, too. The inboard wing panels had large flaps; the outer wing panels could sweep forward and aft through an arc of 20 degrees, and they were hinged to act as ailerons. The outer sections of the elevator could sweep inward and outward, supposedly, to act as a trim device. The internal complexity required to operate these mechanisms would have challenged even today's engineers.

The completed Bonney Gull was kept at Long Island's Roosevelt Field, and on May 4, 1928, was ready for its first test flight. Bonney ran up the engine and checked all the controls. At the end of the runway, he opened the throttle, and after a short takeoff run, the Gull raced across the field and lifted off smoothly. It climbed to about 100 feet, but sadly, Bonney must have moved the wrong control lever, and the aircraft nosed over and dived into the ground. Bonney lay dead in a heap of debris-a tragic ending for a great aviator and his efforts. (more)

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