“Worst” is a big word to throw around when it comes to engineering. A concept might have an infamously troubled development period — say, the 18 year slog of the V-22 Osprey — but ultimately emerge as a versatile and successful end-product. Ideas that seemed dead on arrival like wind tunnel testing in 1934, or crossover wagons in 1987, sometimes rise like Lazarus to shape future design philosophies.
None of those experiences describe the Christmas Bullet. The Christmas Bullet was bad, period.
Dr. William Whitney Christmas was 38-years-old and a licensed physician when the Wright Brothers took off over Kittyhawk in December 1903. But Christmas gave an absolute masterclass in just how far a motivated American could go with a smile, privilege, and absolutely nothing else.
It remains an open question why Christmas went all in on airplanes. He’d never shared an interest prior to the Wright brothers. Here’s what we know.
The Wrights were engineers all over the world trading notes and testing prototypes with the shared goal of powered flight. Alberto Santos-Dumont flew a manned airship in a neat circle around the Eiffel Tower in 1901. Wilhelm Kress’s Drachenflieger might have etched its name in the Austrian sky in the same year, had its power-to-weight ratio not been thrown off by errors at a fledgling engine builder called Daimler.
All that seems to have sounded too much like work for Christmas. He did not study aerial flight. He carried out no experiments. He decided to skip to the part where people would pay him and a flying machine would appear. To that end, he founded the Christmas Aeroplane Company in 1909. In 1918, it would be known as the Cantilever Aero Company.
Christmas had nothing to sell but a story to the Continental Aircraft Corporation and New York Senator James Wolcott Wadsworth when World War I broke out.
His pitch was the Christmas Bullet, an allegedly incredible airplane that could enter German airspace unseen, bomb everything, capture the Kaiser, and be home in time for tea. Alas, the war ended before the Bullter took its first flight around January 1919. When it took off, a wing tore from the fuselage and nose-dove to the ground, killing pilot Cuthbert Mills, according to Jalopnik. Christmas covered up the result, sucked up some more money, and rebuilt, but did not redesign the plane for another run.
The exact same thing happened: wings gone, tipped forward, French pilot Allington Joyce Jolly was killed in the name of Christmas’s hubris. According to research at Virginia Memory, by 1923 he sold his flexible wing patent for $100,000 to the U.S. Army. The useless, unflyable Christmas Bullet, worst so-called aircraft ever made, never saw the light of day again.