Denver’s history is full of innovation and success associated with the emergence of air travel, but perhaps just as many ventures failed. Though Gray Goose Airways was ultimately unsuccessful, founder Jonathan Edward Caldwell was doggedly persistent in its development and displayed an unwavering faith in his ability to innovate. The story of Gray Goose Airways provides insights into the competitive world of early aviation enterprise and reminds us that humans did not always have a firm grasp on the mechanics of flight.
Aviation in Colorado
Engine-powered aviation came to Colorado in 1910, when Louis Paulhan thrilled onlookers at Denver’s Overland Park by flying and then walking away from the state’s first recorded plane crash. Four years later, the first passenger rode in an airplane over Colorado. By the 1920s, Colorado, originally thought to be problematic for pilots because of the altitude, had barnstorming flyers, dirt airstrips, and backyard airplane manufacturers.
Among these early enterprises was Gray Goose Airways, Inc. Its founder, Jonathan Caldwell, believed that, like Daedalus and Icarus of Greek mythology, humans could fly by means of birdlike wings. Investigators later alleged that Caldwell was little more than a con man who did not make a concerted effort to make an airplane that actually worked. The most practical and accepted theory of aeronautics in the 1920s was that flying machines were lifted by horizontal movement and air flowing over and under the wings and flaps. Caldwell thought otherwise. He studied the movements of birds and decided that a better way to fly was very much like birds—in contraptions with wings that flapped up and down.
Caldwell’s Early Life and Career
Little is known of Caldwell’s early years. Born in 1883, he spent his youth in Hensall, Ontario, Canada. In autumn 1912, he enrolled as a mechanical engineering student at Oregon Agricultural College, today known as Oregon State University. For unknown reasons, he withdrew that December after only three months. Despite his limited scholastic experience, Caldwell long claimed to have studied aerodynamics, particularly as it affected bird flight. He claimed to be “the first person to have discovered how birds fly.” Caldwell’s theory lay in the mechanics of a downward push of a wing that lifted a bird upward and the gliding principal that allowed the weight of the bird’s body to carry it forward. In December 1927, while other airplane builders were depending on the flow of air around stationary wings to keep their craft aloft, Caldwell patented his theory. The next year, he founded Gray Goose Airways.
Although the incorporation papers were filed in Nevada, operations were based in Denver. Caldwell tinkered away at his inventions in a shop at 4150 Josephine Street, but for the sake of image—and perhaps to enhance his efforts at selling stock—he took an office downtown in Suite 420 of the US National Bank Building. He and his wife, Olive, lived in northwest Denver, at 4421 West Fiftieth Avenue, and later at 2295 South Downing Street.
Many Coloradans remember Caldwell and his inventions. Ray Goetz recalled viewing a Caldwell aircraft at the Josephine Street location but said that it never did more than “wiggle and shake.” He does remember it lifting about six inches off the ground on one occasion. Another Caldwell invention, using a motorcycle whose movement helped flap the wings, was tested at the old Englewood Field in 1929 and collapsed “about the ears of the pilot” before getting off of the ground, according to an account in The Denver Post.
Caldwell experienced difficulties in the courts as well as on the airstrips. After the 1929 flying failures, he hired Dewey F. Miller and Mel Coeur, airplane builders and mechanics, to construct what they called “a flying machine that would fly and thus save face to the stockholders.” They were fired in early 1930, whereupon they promptly sued Gray Goose for $201,000, charging that they were promised a million shares of stock that never materialized. They further alleged theft of their aircraft designs and wrongful discharge. Caldwell also fired mechanic H. B. Rudolph for telling him that his planes would never fly.
But Caldwell persisted. While he concentrated on his inventions, his sales staff was busy peddling stock in his “innovative” airline. Meanwhile, the Gray Goose office arbitrarily moved around Denver once every few months or years. Edward Simon recalls seeing a Gray Goose craft in a shed near East Twenty-Sixth Avenue at Oneida Street in 1928. He remembered that the craft’s wings looked like venetian blinds that opened on the upstroke and closed on the downstroke. Caldwell regularly asserted that the plane could hover motionless or go 300 miles per hour. Simon realized his naiveté when Caldwell said that a whole brick would fall faster than half a brick and referred to him as a “complete phony.” Bernice Parker’s father, however, bought fifty shares for five dollars in 1929, convinced that, despite the Great Depression, his family would get rich from the stock. She recalls that in later years, the Gray Goose stock became a family joke.
Caldwell saw the storm clouds gathering, and judged Colorado’s atmosphere as not properly hospitable to his venture. So in 1931 he moved his entire operation to Newark, New Jersey, setting up shop at the Teterboro Airport. Gray Goose’s reputation flew faster and farther than its planes ever did; he was soon driven out of New Jersey and moved Gray Goose to Orangeburg, New York.
The Rotating-Disc Ornithopter
There, in 1931, absolutely convinced that airplanes were meant to take off vertically rather than horizontally, he developed a plane with no wings at all that moved about by means of a rapidly rotating disc. This prompted the US Air Force to suggest pointedly that Caldwell was responsible for the new UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) phenomenon at the time. The Air Force later retracted the statement, but the “flying saucer” label stuck with Caldwell for the rest of his days. Feeling persecuted and constantly badgered by government agencies that accused him of fraud, he fled from coast to coast and, later, to Canada.
The rotating-disc aircraft, somewhat akin to a helicopter, got “several inches” off the ground, as Caldwell’s lawyer later told a judge in asserting that the planes did indeed work. Still, in February 1934, he was enjoined from selling his stock in New York as well. Again it was time to move. The next stop was Washington, DC, and then on to Maryland, where stock sales and grandiose promises resumed.
Caldwell now abandoned all aircraft designs except for the rotating disc. Wind tunnel tests demonstrated that the disc rotor would descend vertically, and he was convinced that a mechanism could be devised to allow it to lift vertically as well. He was further encouraged by the success of early helicopter experiments in the United States and Europe.
He was not alone in the enthusiasm for his whirling disc. John W. Ganz, an aircraft mechanic at the Glen Burnie, Maryland, airport, opined that Caldwell was “ten years ahead of his time” in developing certain types of flight devices. Caldwell was said to believe that his helicopter, powered by converted automobile engines, would be as cheap as a family car and carry four or five passengers. But after a test flight on March 8, 1939, a report filed by the Civil Aeronautics Administration stated that the device was unsafe due to its complete lack of horizontal control.
Lack of funds stood in the way of Caldwell perfecting the disc rotor, and the bad financial reputation of Gray Goose Airways presented another barrier. Thus, in 1939 he changed the name to Rotor Planes, Inc., more accurately reflecting the company’s goal. Another stock offering was readied, but by now, any Caldwell-related business venture attracted immediate suspicion. Angry stockholders, the Maryland State Police, and numerous private and public attorneys were pursuing Caldwell, and Maryland became the latest state to prohibit his stock sales.
True to form, Caldwell and his wife and son left town, abandoning their furniture and leaving behind a pile of dirty laundry. Uncharacteristically, not a thing was heard of him for fully a decade. Later, he would say that he spent the years working in “war industries” in Louisiana and on the West Coast. He added that he worked on Howard Hughes’s famous “Spruce Goose” plywood airplane, a rarity in that the Hughes Aircraft Company supported his claims. Ever the opportunist, Caldwell allegedly asked Hughes for financial backing but was predictably snubbed. Exasperated over business conditions in the United States, and probably quite aware that contemporary aircraft development had far outdistanced his own efforts, Caldwell moved back to his native Canada in 1951. There, he continued to design planes based on bird flight, calling his craft the Ornithopter. Caldwell moved from Medicine Hat, Alberta, to Montreal in 1954, and from there his trail disappears. In 1956 two Russians announced that they had invented an ornithopter, and other Canadians followed up by announcing that they had invented “the world’s first true Ornithopter—a machine that flies like a bird.” Caldwell’s contributions to the field, however minimal, were quickly forgotten.
Adapted from Amy Pettle, “Colorado’s Gray Goose Airways: The Airline that Never Took Off,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 13, no. 4 (1993).