Custer Channelwing

The saga of the Custer Channelwing is probably the most interesting of all V/STOL aircraft. It is without doubt, the oldest ongoing saga in aviation. This is the story of a single minded man on a single minded mission to change the path of aviation. Years of research, tests by every conceivable variety of agency, and stunning flying examples, didn't add up to commercial production of the Channelwing. It isn't that the Custer wouldn't perform, it was rather, that maybe it performed unbelievably well, with the accent on unbelievable.

Willard Custer made many claims for the Channelwing, including the discovery of new lift principles, which he called, "aerophysics". Most engineers, cynics and parents, know you can't get something, for nothing. So when Custer claimed 8.2 pounds of static lift per horsepower, with a simple fixed wing aircraft, critics scoffed and tended to look the other way. But, Custer was persistent to say the least. In time, he was back, claiming 13.8 pounds lift per horsepower, vertical capabilities, fighter like speed, simple construction, and heavy load capacity, beyond anything built to date. He also hinted that the university academia and manufacturers didn't know what they were talking about when they criticized the Channelwing, and needed to be re-trained to understand his new theories of lift. It was obvious by this time that he was a crackpot inventor, untrained in the aeronautical world, and tiresome to listen to.

Custer was dumped into the dustbin of aviation history for obvious reasons. So obvious, in fact, that no one stopped to notice that, for the most part, he was right.

CCW-5 five seconds into takeoff run. This aircraft can be seen at the Mid Atlantic Air Museum, in Reading, Pennsylvania.

The idea of the channelwing pre-dates most of those who are reading this site. It all began in the 1920s, when Willard Custer took shelter in a barn during a near hurricane velocity storm. Much to his surprise and fascination, the roof of the barn suddenly lifted off, and soared through the air. He wondered why an airplane had to gather speed on a runway, while a barn roof, a poor airfoil by any reckoning, could fly from a standing start. He soon came to the realization that it was ,the speed of the air, over the surface, not the speed of the surface through the air that created lift. Bernoulli principle in both cases, but an application that had eluded aviation up to that time. He settled on the idea of pulling the air through channels that were, in fact, the lower half of a venturi. He was reversing the normal method of powered flight. Instead of using the engines to move the airfoil through the air, he used the engine to move the air through the airfoil. His channel had the effect of going several hundred miles per hour, due to the induced air flow, while standing still. The airflow over the surface of the channel created conventional lift, and a lot of it. It was at this point that Custer settled on," It's the speed of the air, not the airspeed", which became his mantra of, "aerophysics".

Many experiments followed with all nature of devices. The first real aircraft to which he applied his principle, was the CCW-1, or Custer Channelwing number one, which now hangs at the Garber facility of the Smithsonian. It is still strangely modern, even after all these years, with a smoothly rounded fuselage, and a wrap around Plexiglas canopy. But, close inspection reveals the channels appended with two by four struts. Two 75 HP engines were fitted into the two six foot diameter half-barrel like channels, and the tests were started. First flight was November 12, 1942. The CCW-1 was used for test purposes only, to prove the concept. More than 300 hours of flight tests did prove that the Custer not only flew, but was capable of flight without wings. After the first flights proved stability, the wings were progressively cut off or had spoilers attached to the point of having no lift from the wings at all. The test pilot noticed no difference because the channels furnished all the lift needed! Most of these tests were low, straight ahead hops. A demonstration took place in Beltsville Maryland for Brigadier General W. E. Gilmore. Gilmore was noted for his gruff temperament, but after seeing the demonstration, was excited enough to place a call to Orville Wright, asking that he come out to witness the Custer phenomenon. Orville didn't make it, but the plane was placed in a military test program. The results of these tests proved to be typical of the many government tests the Channel wing received over the years. The Army Air Force technical report concluded that the lift generated by the channels was similar to normal induced lift created by other wing /propeller arrangements. Although this was a complete falsification, the damage was done, and Custer was on the defensive. What they forgot to mention, was that the channelwing created more static lift than the weight of the test vehicle, and was, in fact, capable of vertical takeoff! The report stated that the channelwing was inferior to the helicopter in creating static lift and did not show sufficient promise of military value to warrant further testing. This was at a time when every conceivable concept from flying wings to rocket ships was being tried. The conclusion, both then and now, seems incomprehensible to say the least. To Custer, it was obvious that the tests had been too good, and consequently helicopter interests were pushing him out of the picture. That seems to be the most likely scenario, as later tests proved the channelwing to outlift helicopters of the day, with 13.8 pounds of lift per horsepower recorded. Custer was a good inventor, but a little naive about politics and government contracts. He also felt that the engineering staff and theorists just didn't understand the Custer phenomenon, as they didn't understand "aero physics". But, if faith in the government was dimmed, faith in himself wasn't. Over the next forty years, he obtained financial backing for a series of aircraft from CCW-2 to CCW-5. He had enough data and tests to convince enough investors to bring him near full production on at least two occasions.

In 1951, he co-operated with the Baumann Aircraft Company, and modified one of their twin pusher aircraft to a Custer configuration. This was the CCW-5, and had two 225 HP engines, and weighed en excess of 4300 pounds. Walker Davidson made the first flight of the CCW-5 in July of 1953. As usual, the aircraft was highly successful. Demonstrations repeatedly showed hair raising maximum performance takeoffs, nose high climbs at speeds so low it seemed obvious that the Custer would fall out of the sky. Three second takeoffs, with nose high steep turns of 45 to 60 degrees bank, at speeds below 30MPH gave the CCW-5 the ability to take off and do a 180 before most planes could lift off. Video of these flights still confound experienced pilots. Although I have personally logged 20,000+ hours, in all nature of aircraft, I was absolutely stunned the first time I saw the videos of the Custer doing a 150 foot takeoff, roll into a steep bank at speeds that would have insured a stall - spin - crash, in any other plane, and leave town going the other way, while staying within what appeared to be about a 250' square area. Slow flight was a specialty, and the CCW-5 flew at a measured 22 MPH and on August 27, 1954 hovered against an 11 MPH wind, although it was not modified to use maximum lift potential. Cruise speed remained a normal 170 mph.

These tests attracted more investors, and it seemed that Custer and Noordyun Aircraft Ltd. of Canada were going to do a production run of at least 100 aircraft. On the strength of this proposal, a production version of the CCW-5 was built and rolled out on July 4 of 1964. Although it looked like the original Baumann conversion, the second model was built from scratch, rather than modified from an existing aircraft. Now came the securities and exchange commission who claimed the stock was not issued correctly, and the deal fell through, in a manner reminiscent of the Tucker car.

Since then, the Custer channelwing has virtually disappeared, and few have even heard of the aircraft, let alone its' questionable capabilities.