In 1908, Paul Schill notched a land speed record with his Fiat at the racing strip in Wildwood, N.J. When the time came to defend the record the following year, however, the daredevil driver had abandoned his love of automobiles for a new passion: airplanes.
If travelling at breakneck speeds across the New Jersey shoreline was fun, Schill figured, soaring over the earth in a plane must surely be ecstasy. Once Schill learned of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s successful flight in North Carolina he turned his attention to flying.
Schill’s first invention to attract attention was an 80-horsepower V-8 engine he designed to be lightweight and powerful for use in airplanes in 1912. He exhibited the plane’s power by racing up and down New York’s Hudson River, circling the Statue of Liberty.
Schill travelled to Europe in search of ever faster planes to fly, including with the early German air force. But then the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, forced the German government to destroy all its planes. Schill then returned to the United States to promote air travel.
He discovered a level patch of ground in Milton, Vt., With backing from one of Vermont’s leading businessmen, Alfred Heininger, Vermont Air Transport Co. was founded. Its purpose: to develop experimental aircraft, with Schill as its leader.
Schill used air shows to promote flying. He flew into Burlington in 1923 to celebrate the city’s 150th birthday. Following Vermont’s disastrous flood of 1927, Schill and other pilots delivered food from planes to people isolated by the flood. The dramatic food drops underscored the practical importance of airplanes.
One of Schill’s techniques was making the most of a plane’s fuel by travelling high aloft and then gliding toward the ground. Then he’d restart and repeat the glide.
In 1927, to promote flying, Schill flew a small wedding party and a Congregational minister aloft. Eight minutes later they returned to the ground. The first midair wedding had been performed.
In 1928, Schill became consumed with winning the Guggenheim Safe Aircraft Competition. The rules were strict. A plane had to lift off using 500 feet of runway, pass over a 35-foot obstacle, demonstrate the ability to fly stably without pilot intervention, glide at a slow, safe speed and land in less than 300 feet.
Schill designed his “Gull Wing” plane to meet the standards laid out by Guggenheim competition. A small, silver plane with dual cockpits, the Gull Wing was highly maneuverable. It could come to a virtual standstill in the air before moving quickly forward. Early trials in New Jersey were promising. You can see a video of the plane here:
Back to Vermont
Schill returned to Vermont and his backers decided another trial was needed. This one in secret, so that the others competing for the prize could not steal the design of the Gull Wing. The $100,000 prize offered by philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim for the safety contest had attracted dozens of fierce competitors who weren’t above ‘borrowing’ ideas from each other.
Eventually, 15 planes would compete for the Guggenheim prize, but Gull Wing was not among them. Schill and his backers took the Gull Wing to St. Albans for a secret test. Schill took the little plane aloft and put it through its paces. However, the linkage in the tail section of the plane malfunctioned, and it was all Schill could do to bring the plane down.
Slamming into the ground, its nose gouging into the soil, the Gull Wing was destroyed. Schill suffered broken ribs and a broken leg. He shipped to the South to recuperate and the dreams of the Guggenheim prize died.
The accident and the Great Depression would end the Vermont Transport Co.’s hopes of becoming a major aircraft company. Burlington became the focal point of aviation in Vermont, and Schill would end his career as a flight instructor.
This story was updated in 2022.
Images: Seagull By Alan D. Wilson, www.naturespicsonline.com – http://www.naturespicsonline.com/ (higher resolution version obtained in correspondence with website owner), CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1214883.