Today, Dornier's flying palace. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Airplanes are such lovely machines -- glorious as birds, in
their diversity. The smallest piloted airplane, the Bumblebee II, flew in 1988.
This tiny biplane, with its five-and-a-half-foot wingspan, was built by Robert Starr of
Phoenix, Arizona. Starr flew it several times before he crashed and was seriously hurt.
Several planes vie for the crown of largest-ever-flown. It depends on whether we look
at wingspan, weight, or some other figure. We have yet to exceed the 319-foot wingspan
of Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose, or the 650-ton takeoff weight of the \
Airbus 380 -- capable of carrying 853 passengers.
That said, here's a historic extreme airplane for you: the 1929 Dornier X.
Germany was under the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty which forbade her from
building powered airplanes. The engineer, Claudius Dornier, had honed his skills
working for Count von Zeppelin on dirigible design. When he turned to heavier-than-air
seaplanes, he set up shop on the Swiss side of Lake Constance where he wouldn't violate
the Treaty. Now he'd finished his Dornier X; and what an airplane it was!
Its takeoff weight was over sixty tons and it was powered by twelve six-hundred-horsepower
engines. They were mounted in six pods above the airplane's 157-foot wing. Six engines
pulled the airplane forward; and six more faced backward, pushing it. It was far and away
the largest airplane up 'til then. designed to carry seventy passengers in sumptuous comfort.
Dornier called it the X because it heralded an unknown future.
The X made a demonstration run over Lake Constance in October, 1929. During the
forty-minute flight, it carried, not seventy, but 169, people -- employees, journalists,
stowaways, and a ten-man crew. That record wouldn't be bested until the mid-'40s.
A year later, The Dornier X set out on another demonstration run. This time it
would fly the Atlantic (three years after Lindbergh). The convoluted route included stops
throughout Europe, then from Portugal to West Africa and across the Atlantic to stops in
South America. Finally it flew to New York by way of Miami.
Of course the flight exposed weaknesses. The engines ate too much fuel; a fire in Lisbon
grounded it for six weeks. The ten-month Odyssey actually made it clear that this plane
would never provide the regular transoceanic service the public wanted. At the same time,
I can hardly call this grand gesture a failure.
I can only dream of flying a long flight in this aerial hotel with its private sleeping
quarters, its central salon carpeted in Oriental rugs, plush furniture -- of eating freshly
prepared food in its dining room. Airplanes are indeed as lovely as birds in their diversity.
And I especially grieve that no Dornier X survives to display its brilliant plumage
in our plain utilitarian age of aerial transport.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
O. E. Allen and Time-Life Editors, The Airline Builders. (Alexandria,
VA: Time-Life Books, 1981): pp. 44-49.
This site provides more information about the Bumblebee II
and images of it.
For more on the Dornier X, see this Wikipedia site
or check this AllStar Network page.
This site on early German flying boats
provides excellent photos of the Dornier X along with several of Dornier's other seaplane designs.
Images above from The Wonder-Book of Aircraft. (H. Golding, ed.) (London: Ward, Lock & Co., Ltd. 1920 and
subsequent eds.). Images below courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. The bottom image compares very large
airplanes as of 2008.