< home

< maryland main


Caldwell's Saucers


In 1923, a Spanish engineer named Juan de la Cierva made a giant step toward practical vertical flight when he perfected a rudimentary type of helicopter called an autogyro. It resembled a conventional airplane fuselage equipped with a large rotor mounted on pylons above the fuselage. Cierva licensed his hybrid aircraft/rotorcraft design to builders all over the world, and hundreds of copies rolled from assembly lines through the 1930s.

Cierva C 30 Autogyro



Imperial War Museum

Around the time that Cierva introduced his aircraft, an obscure Canadian-born American inventor decided to cash in on autogyro fever and build a similar machine -- a plane that he hoped would be an airborne Model T Ford suited for the mass market.

Jonathan Edward Caldwell was something of a mystery even to his close relatives, and his strange career can only be reconstructed in spotty form through newspaper clippings, patent documents and newsreel scripts. According to his college records, Caldwell was born in the small town of Hensall, Ontario, Canada in 1883. He attended Oregon State College, Corvallis, from 1912 to 1913, majoring in mechanical engineering. In the 1920s, according to statements he made later in life, Caldwell became interested in aviation and began to study the fundamentals of aerodynamics, gleaning scraps of knowledge from textbooks and encyclopedias.

In February 1923, while living in Santa Monica, California, he filed an application for a patent covering a rather bizarre aircraft -- a so-called "Cyclogyro"-- which was designed to take off vertically and transition to forward flight. The plane's "wings" were actually small airfoil blades mounted in Ferris wheel-like rotating frames protruding from either side of a conventional aircraft fuselage.

The Cyclogyro patent was granted in the summer of 1927, but by the end of that year Caldwell, now living in Denver, filed another patent on an even more impractical human-powered, flapping-wing aircraft, or "ornithopter." This contraption looked like a rowboat with birdlike wings. These wings were equipped with dozens of flexible fabric valves which were supposed to open on the upstroke and close on the downstroke. Power for the flapping action was to be provided by the pilot, who would need to be highly athletic, to say the least.

Caldwell founded a company called "Gray Goose Airways" to raise capital to build his ornithopter and incorporated the firm under Nevada laws in 1928, with the first shares of stock being sold in Denver that year. He planned to issue ten thousand shares of Gray Goose stock at ten cents per share, while retaining a fifty-one percent interest, and actually succeeded in selling between $8,000 and $10,000 worth.

By 1931 Caldwell had failed to produce a viable ornithopter in Nevada and Colorado and moved his enterprise to the east coast, evidently first to Orangeburg, New York, and later to Madison, New Jersey. In early 1932 he was actively promoting Gray Goose Airways as a new passenger and freight airline, with himself as secretary-treasurer and his wife Olive as president. A newsreel filmed on January 14 shows the Caldwells conducting a demonstration of the ornithopter, which was "piloted" in a futile attempt at flight by a man with the unlikely name of "Emile Harrier." According to the newsreel's script, Olive makes a statement to the interviewer in which she cites the examples of Alexander Graham Bell and Marconi, pioneers in their fields, and claims that the Gray Goose project "has not been an exception to the persecution of the experts." Evidently they had already taken their share of criticism. Construction of a prototype ornithopter was started at nearby Teterboro Airport and the company was authorized to issue $1,000,000 worth of stock at ten cents a share. Things seem to have been going smoothly until that September, when New Jersey Assistant Attorney General Robert Grossman charged Caldwell with fraud.

Grossman found that Caldwell had been voted a fifty-one percent block of Gray Goose stock in exchange for his ornithopter patents, but the certificates were never used because, in Grossman's words, "the defendant company never had money enough to pay for the internal revenue stamps required to be affixed to the certificates of the stock." Grossman also charged that construction of the impractical ornithopter prototype had wasted thousands of dollars of the company's money, and that "no one connected with the company possessed sufficient knowledge of aeronautics to build a practical ship."

Caldwell and Grossman wrangled for the next few weeks, and the court finally agreed to give the inventor until early December to complete and demonstrate the prototype, on condition that he stop selling stock. Presumably Caldwell was never able to satisfy Grossman. Within a few months, Gray Goose had been moved back across the Hudson River to New York. That state's officials also began to ask questions about Caldwell's business techniques, and by 1934, he had moved his shop and family to the Washington, DC, area. According to telephone records, Caldwell set up Gray Goose Airways in an office at 1225 New York Avenue, NW, just three blocks from the White House.

About that time he filed a prospectus with the Maryland Securities and Exchange Commission describing Gray Goose Airways' latest project, a new type of autogyro, as a "disk-rotor plane." (New Jersey Attorney General Grossman had noted in his 1932 complaint that Caldwell had already begun work on the disk-rotor plane in Teterboro.) According to Caldwell's filing, he envisioned this craft as a "cheap, safe and convenient general utility aircraft capable of taking off and landing in a small yard or on the flat roof of a building." The production plane would carry four or five passengers and would be priced to sell below the cost of the most inexpensive automobiles, Caldwell claimed. Incorporating partners of Gray Goose Airways in Maryland included Caldwell, Willis H. Ruggles, Lina Johnson and Gordon A. Crandall.

While other inventors had tried circular wings before, Caldwell's approach was unique in one respect: his plane's wing was actually a twelve-foot, fabric-covered disk mounted on a rotating hub. It functioned as a combination wing and autogyro rotor. Four very small blades were grafted to the rim of the saucer, providing reaction surfaces which would cause the whole assembly to spin as the aircraft rolled forward. Power was supplied by a small nine-cylinder air-cooled radial engine and a two-blade propeller, and the pilot would steer the craft using a rudder and combination elevator-ailerons at the tail. The plane was otherwise much like a standard airplane of the period, built of a welded tubular steel framework covered by lacquered fabric. It would take off like an autogyro, but once it reached cruising altitude, the pilot would activate a brake in the rotor hub, locking the wing in a stationary position while the craft cruised along in horizontal flight at a top speed of about 100 mph. Near-vertical landings could be accomplished by reversing the procedure...or so Caldwell claimed. The prototype Gray Goose disk-rotor plane was completed near Washington between 1936 and 1938. The Civil Aeronautics Agency issued the experimental registration number "NX-99Y" for the craft.

Jonathan Caldwell with the Gray Goose disk-rotor Plane, circa 1937



(click to enlarge)

Around 1937 Caldwell also revived his 1923 Cyclogyro VTOL concept and started construction on a modified prototype. It was another far-fetched VTOL plane in the style of the impractical flying machines that graced the covers of magazines like Popular Science through the 1930s. The inventor attempted to mount two long three-bladed airfoil-equipped paddlewheels to the sides of a conventional-looking aircraft fuselage, but this time the axles of the paddlewheels ran fore-and-aft, parallel to the length of the machine's body. The airfoils were geared in such a way that as they were spun by the machine's 125-horsepower radial engine, they would theoretically produce enough thrust to lift the craft straight up. One of Caldwell's associates later claimed that this craft actually made successful "test-hops" to a height of about six feet.

In Washington Caldwell finally hired some professional aircraft technicians to assist with the detailed design of the ambitious new machines. An aeronautical engineer named J. Owen Evans came aboard to work out the aerodynamics of the disk-rotor plane and the Cyclogyro, and a mechanic named Willard E. Driggers helped build the craft. The inventor also arranged with Dr. Louis Crook, an engineering professor at Washington's Catholic University, to make wind-tunnel tests of the Cyclogyro. Foreseeing wide military applications for an aircraft that would be able to take off and land vertically and hover in mid-air, Caldwell even approached the Army Air Corps with his plans. Unfortunately, the Air Corps wasn't impressed. Sometime in late 1937 or early 1938 (accounts vary), probably under pressure from his stockholders to produce results, Caldwell persuaded Driggers to attempt a test flight in the disk-rotor plane. The mechanic had never flown a plane at all, much less something as radical as Caldwell's funny-looking contraption. The plane was transported to the abandoned Benning Racetrack near Washington for the big event.

Karl Caldwell with disk-rotor plane near Washington DC, about 1938



(click to enlarge)

According to later accounts, Driggers opened up the throttle and soon found himself forty feet in the air, supported by the whirling saucer-shaped wing and slowly gaining altitude. But seconds later, as he attempted to change course, he realized that the controls were not responding. Fearing for his safety if he continued to climb, he cut power abruptly and the plane slammed down some two hundred yards from its takeoff point, smashing the landing gear in the process but leaving Driggers uninjured. The fractured landing gear was eventually replaced, this time by a more up-to-date nose-wheel style unit, but time and money were running out on Caldwell's Washington company.

Disk-rotor plane modified with tricycle undercarriage after crash



(click to enlarge)

Reportedly only about $5,000 short of the funds he needed to perfect his machines, the inventor had apparently lost interest in solving the problems of the disk-rotor prototype and had begun cooking up an even more outlandish VTOL rotorcraft design -- one that would completely eliminate the conventional airplane-style fuselage all his previous machines had used. He notified his investors that Gray Goose Airways stock was now being swapped for shares in a reorganized entity to be called "Rotor Planes, Inc.," established by himself and two individuals named P. D. Ellis and A. L. E. Samson.

In 1939 Caldwell closed down Gray Goose Airways, let Driggers and Evans go, and moved his business and family once again, this time to Baltimore, where he set up a workshop on Edmonson Avenue on the city's west side. Here he persuaded another aircraft mechanic, forty-one year old John W. Ganz of Anne Arundel, to assist him (in return, predictably, for shares of Rotor Planes stock) and began work on the new "Rotorplane," which amounted to an attempt to reduce the autogyro to its barest fundamentals, virtually a flying rotor, with its powerplant, controls, and occupants housed in a compact disk-like hub.

Sketch of the 1939-40 Rotorplane (Baltimore Sun) Rotorplane in "test rig," 1940 (Baltimore Evening Sun)

Like a true helicopter, the Rotorplane would be able to take off straight up, hover, and then fly off in any direction at the will of the pilot. Ganz and Caldwell built a small aluminum model of the machine, equipped it with a quarter-horsepower gasoline engine, and actually managed to make it fly. The sight of the little silvery disk hovering in mid-air, its rotor blades whizzing invisibly around its saucer-like body, impressed Caldwell's dwindling band of investors enough to squeeze a few more dollars out of them for construction of a full-sized prototype. Some of them might have been thinking of that summer's World's Fair in New York and its optimistic slogan: "I Have Seen the Future." The actual fabrication of the saucer-like prototype was accomplished at the Edmonson Avenue shop and in a cramped metal shed on a farm that Caldwell had rented near the tiny crossroads village of Harundale, a couple of miles south of Glen Burnie.

The Rotorplane prototype was built largely from pine and plywood in the form of a fourteen-foot diameter disk about three feet thick. Around the top and bottom edges of the disk two metal hoops were mounted on bearings in such a way that they could spin freely. To each of the hoops were attached four seven-foot-long airfoil-shaped blades, giving the machine an overall diameter of twenty-eight feet. The rotor assemblies were driven by a gasoline-powered aircraft engine mounted in the center of the craft, via a system of rubber rollers (said to be modified roller-skate wheels), and the rotors were designed to spin in opposite directions to cancel out the torque reaction. The prototype could accommodate one test pilot, but the production machine was to have seating for up to four passengers under a large transparent dome at the center of the rotor hub. The device, reportedly weighing fifteen hundred pounds, was installed in a special rig inside a barn for testing. Two large vertical posts were mounted securely to the floor of the barn and passed through openings near the rim of the central disk in such a way that the machine could slide up and down through a limited distance and hover in relative safety a few feet off the ground while its rotor system was being perfected.

Caldwell's dreams were crushed for the last time when the only available engine proved incapable of persuading the three-quarter-ton disk to lift off. No money was available to purchase a more powerful motor, and the experiments were useless without one. Caldwell's investors had had enough, and their complaints quickly reached the Maryland Securities and Exchange Commission. On February 8, 1940, the inventor was called before Robert E. Clapp, the state's assistant Attorney General and forced to account for his activities. Under Clapp's questioning, Caldwell acknowledged that his sales literature grossly misrepresented the level of development of his designs, implying that they were virtually ready for production when in fact he had flown nothing but models. Once again the inventor had to admit that he had no formal aeronautical training and that he couldn't even remember the names of the engineering textbooks that had inspired him so many years before. Clapp pored over the records of Caldwell's previous undertakings, saw the sad succession of broken promises, and came to the generous conclusion that Caldwell was a sincere but misguided man who genuinely believed that he had made some significant technical breakthroughs.

Others interpreted Caldwell's motives in a less kindly light, considering the man a crank who simply sold stock to raise money for his latest project and then spent the money at will, leaving his investors with nothing but worthless certificates. Clapp issued a "cease and desist" order forbidding Caldwell to peddle any more Rotor Planes stock in Maryland. The fifty-seven year old inventor, beleaguered by creditors, penniless and with his aeronautical dreams in shambles, had reached the end of the line.

Louis Pumphrey, Caldwell's landlord, was relaxing on a Florida vacation when he received a surprising telegram from Anne Arundel. Something had come up, Caldwell wrote, and he and his family would be leaving the farm immediately. He left Pumphrey a Washington, DC forwarding address, and as a final aside, asked him to pay his utility bills. Pumphrey caught the next train home and discovered a shocking scene at his farm. The Caldwells were gone, and it looked like a tornado had struck. All the family's furniture was still there, the contents of drawers were strewn about, and to add insult to injury, a pile of dirty laundry was tied up in a sheet and dumped in the middle of the living room floor. In his hasty flight, Caldwell had left his airplanes behind.

Pumphrey, Ganz and the jilted Rotorplane investors attempted to trace the designer through the Washington address, but it was useless -- the Caldwells were gone for good. The mystified landlord dragged the partially dismantled Gray Goose disk-plane and the Rotorplane test rig into a tobacco drying shed near the farmhouse and dumped them unceremoniously in a heap, probably thinking that no one would ever want to see the strange things again.

And he would have been right, if on the afternoon of June 24, 1947, a fire extinguisher salesman from Idaho had not sighted nine shiny disk-like objects flying in formation at 1700 mph near Mt Rainier, Washington.

next >