The Fantastic Durham Embryos

The Mystery of the DURHAM MYSTERY SHIP

I had been told and it has been assumed that this model was a Dave Stott design.  I contacted Paul Stott and he said the design was NOT one of Dave’s, but he thought it was a design by Tom Nallen (I).  Here is what Tom had to say about the Durham Mystery Plane:

“The Durham Mystery Ship was drawn, built and flown as a Legal Eagle.  Its first fully wound flight was its last.  The flyaway was at Durham, CT and Dave Stott was by my side as I launched her. She flew straight as a die and never turned off her heading, finally going out of sight over the Great Swamp that borders Pinkham Field in Durham, CT.   The model was found a week or so later by FACer Bill Simpson a long distance away from where she went OOS and almost 180 degrees in the opposite direction.  We have no idea of how the airplane got so far back from where she went out of our sight.

The model bore no name tag.  She appealed to Bill so he took dimensions and drew up a set of plans that he submitted to Dave for the FAC News.  When he explained about how he found the model Dave attached the Mystery moniker which has stuck.  As soon as I saw the plan in the newsletter I knew it was the Legal Eagle I had drawn and built.  Legal Eagle rules call for non-parallel leading and trailing edges on flight surfaces and I noted that Bill Simpson’s drawing didn’t meet that requirement.”


Winn Moore suggested that I lengthen the fuselage of the DMS and create a new model.  I went a lot farther, changing the tail and the airfoil and felt I had to create a similar account of the new Durham model.  While Tom’s story is a true story of actual events, mine is a fictional tale of fantastic proportions.

As seen in FACN #305 (Jan-Feb 2019):

It was the early 30s and experimental aviation was at its heyday, with little mom-and-pop companies starting up (and flashing out) all across the country and New England was no exception.  In Durham, Connecticut, Tom Nallen and Sons had just had a variation on success with their first design – a flivver of sorts.  It was a single-place open cockpit broad-winged tail-dragger.  They had taken it out to Pinkham Field for its first test flight and young Frankie Barnett was at the stick.

They had used a Ford engine and the old four-cylinder popped to life and Frankie taxied to the end of the runway and pushed the throttle forward.  After just a short run, the tail came up and then the little flivver jumped right off the ground and headed straight away, climbing at a wonderful rate.  They had expected Frankie to turn and circle the field, but he just kept going inexplicably straight with nary a wing waggle.

That was the last they saw of the little ship; its fate was a mystery.  They hadn’t heard it crash and no wreckage was ever found (it would be a year or so before Old Man Simpson found a well-preserved runabout that turned out to be the Durham Mystery – Frankie was never heard from again.)

While ol’ Tom was concerned about loss of the plane and the pilot, the boys were clamoring and excited.  “Did you see how that jumped right off the runway?” “And how about how stable it flew!”  Tom couldn’t keep them down and they formed “AC/DC” – the Aircraft Corporation of Durham, CT.  And the boys got to work thinking about their next design and the wonderful future that laid ahead of them.  They thought about building another flivver, but dad wouldn’t have it, given that the original seemed to be so ill-fated.  The excitement was there, but there was little consensus and no focus on a singular direction.

One day, a stranger walked into the barn where the boys were working on the chalkboards.  “I hear you all are building aero-planes and I am here to help you out!”  He introduced himself as “Giorgio Breda-Pensutti” straight off the boat from the Italian design hangars.  (This was quite strange as the boys didn’t hear any Italian accent – it was more like a clear Midwestern twang.)  But Giorgio had some ideas – and some resources – that the boys just couldn’t ignore.

Giorgio brought an entire concept to the design board:  he said they should take their little flivver and think bigger – literally.  The best way to make money was to attract money and who could afford planes these days but the very wealthy?  They were at that point in time where the Executive aircraft market was just beginning to get started.  They would grow and stretch the basic design they had into something much bigger and grander:  The Durham Air Limousine!

And, he knew of the perfect power plant that could be had for cheap.  Just recently, Ayreton Squires, the playboy heir to the local Squires fortune, had a “slight mishap” with his new 1932 Packard Super Eight Roadster when “flock of turkeys” flew in front of him on his way home from a party at heiress Beatrice Parsons’ family estate.  Turkeys hadn’t been seen in the Durham area for quite some time, but you know how things get resolved when you’re young – and loaded.

In any case, the Packard Super Eight was available for cheap – and “Powered by Packard” would certainly lend an air of elegance to the new cabin plane.  They went all out – they took the same wing layout and calculated how large it would need to be to carry the weight of such a motor.  This increased the other dimensions of the aircraft so that it would carry four in luxury, not including the pilot – and a steward.  In addition, Giorgio pulled a “secret” airfoil out of his hat, one that promised superior lift and increase efficiency in the cruise.  The Boys questioned the airfoil, but Giorgio built a model and when it glided clear across the barnyard, the Boys were sold.

The first example of the Durham Air Limousine was completed and testing commenced.  The Packard had some minor quirks that needed to be ironed out – all of which had to do with the conversion to an aircraft motor.  It was noted that it was quite torquey and should produce wonderful pulling power.  The twin-tailed beauty was ready for that first flight.

Ol’ Tom had “retired” from the airplane business, but as the first flight approached, he voiced significant concern, reflecting on the past experiences with the Mystery.  He was adamant that his sons not be on board for the first flight.  That only left Giorgio to go for the test hop.  He wasn’t the best pilot, although he could manage, so he agreed to pilot the elegant aircraft.

As he jammed the throttle forward, the big Packard roared to life.  Unfortunately, it appeared that Giorgio could not ease the throttle back – at all – with any amount of force.  It was all he could do to counteract the massive torque and the plane leapt off the runway and locked into an amazing right spiral climb.  With no throttle control and a full tank of gas, the single example of the luxurious Durham Air Limousine corkscrewed right on up – right through the cloud that was right above the field – and continued on.  The Nallen crew watched in a combined awe and horror as their creation flew out of site.  They could hear the droning of the Packard for ages, they would occasionally see a flash of the wing tip way up, but they finally had to give up.

That was the end of AC/DC.  It was also the end of Giorgio.  Nallen and Sons closed up shop and threw their materials and library in the local landfill.  Decades later, the drawings for the Mystery and the Air Limousine were discovered by local free flight modelers.  They quickly noted that some of the elements of the Air Limo were used a decade after the factory closed shop, namely:  the twin tails were exact matches to the Shaft (Jan 1944 Flying Aces Magazine) and the airfoil was a combination Clark Y (upper) and RAF 32 (lower) that was found on the Gollywock (1939).  How these details went from the Aircraft Corporation of Durham, CT to the model building community is still a mystery.