Glenn H. Curtiss - 100 Years Ago
by Trafford L-M. Doherty
A century ago, Glenn Hammond Curtiss, who would one day be considered "The Father of Naval Aviation" and "Founder of the American Aircraft Industry", was manufacturing motorcycles in his hometown of Hammondsport , New York . A century ago, at the age of 25, Curtiss never dreamed that he would ever get off the ground, let alone rise to the level of eminence described above. But rise he did, and the manner in which this occurred began quite simply. As a motorcycle manufacturer, Curtiss was quite successful. He was in direct competition with firms such as Harley Davidson and Indian, which he defeated regularly in races. He was a fierce competitor and an expert rider. In a nutshell, life was good. Then along came Thomas Baldwin. Baldwin was a showman and entrepreneur, who at the beginning of the 1900's specialized in balloon ascents and parachute descents. In 1903 Baldwin was interested in building a dirigible (today, we would call it a blimp) and had been looking for a suitable engine. After seeing a Curtiss motorcycle, he promptly ordered a V-Twin engine from the G. H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company. Upon receiving the engine, Baldwin mounted it on his "California Arrow" which, in 1904, became the first successful dirigible in the United States . Baldwin was very impressed with this engine. His next step was to go to Hammondsport to meet Glenn Curtiss. Curtiss was amazed to find Baldwin, who was by then somewhat of a celebrity, on his doorstep. He was even more amazed when he found out what Baldwin had accomplished with his engine. This event marked the beginning of an excellent working relationship that was to become a lifelong friendship. Baldwin ultimately moved his dirigible manufacturing operations to Hammondsport to be in closer proximity to his "engine man". Curtiss was quickly gaining a national reputation as an expert on lightweight, powerful engines, and by 1906, virtually anyone operating a dirigible in the U.S. was using a Curtiss engine. As development progressed, the need for larger, more powerful engines kept pace. A Straight Four was developed, followed ultimately by a V-8 of about 40 HP. Initially developed for dirigible application, his V-8 became the basic pattern for Curtiss aero engines for many years to come. But first he decided to try it on a motorcycle.
1907 was a significant year for Glenn Curtiss. On January 24 th he became the "fastest man in the world" when he rode his V-8 powered motorcycle at a sustained speed of 136.4 MPH to establish a land speed record that stood until 1911 for cars and 1930 for motorcycles. It's interesting to note that a year later, at Rheims , France , he also became the "fastest man in the air" at the breath-taking speed of 46.5 MPH.
On June 28 th , 1907 , Curtiss made his first flight ever - in a Baldwin Dirigible. Later in that same summer, he was contacted by Alexander Graham Bell, who wanted to purchase a Curtiss engine to power a heavier-than-air flying machine that he was working on. Curtiss was invited to travel to Dr. Bell's summer home in Baddeck , Nova Scotia , and deliver his engine in person. He was then persuaded to stay on as engineering advisor during the course of the experiments. Experimentation at that time was relatively short-lived, but the ease with which Curtiss worked with Bell and his associates led to the formation of the Aerial Experiment Association. The "AEA" consisted of five members: Alexander Graham Bell, Glenn Curtiss, John McCurdy, Frederick "Casey" Baldwin, and Lt. Thomas Selfridge (US Army). In December of 1907 they elected to move their operation to Hammondsport where Curtiss manufacturing facilities would be at their disposal (Curtiss also had a business to run). The AEA went on to build four flying machines, each one better than the last. Their first machine, the "Red Wing" (red silk wing covering), had no form of lateral control. It crashed almost immediately, but not before it had flown over 300 feet in what is acknowledged as the first "public flight" of an airplane in the United States . Their next attempt, the "White Wing" (white cotton this time), incorporated triangular shaped "ailerons" as wingtips. Actuated by simple ropes attached to the pilot's body, these devices produced effective lateral control and enabled the White Wing to complete several successful flights, the longest being over 1000 feet, with Curtiss at the controls. Hard "landings" took their toll on the White Wing and it was ultimately dismantled. Its engine and other components went into the next AEA creation, the" June Bug", which was designed largely by Curtiss himself. The June Bug is an historic aircraft by virtue of its bringing manned flight totally into the public realm, thus making Glenn Curtiss forever associated with it. In the summer of 1908, Curtiss announced that on July 4 th , he would attempt to win the "Scientific American Trophy", which would require an official, witnessed flight of one kilometer (3274 ft.). His announcement brought officials from the Scientific American Association to Hammondsport on July fourth to record his official attempt. Accompanying them was the news media plus a couple thousand onlookers. Curtiss went on to fly over 5000 feet, winning the prize and exceeding the requirement by a wide margin. The June Bug, and the White Wing before it, featured the innovative Curtiss "tricycle" type landing gear, which is now commonplace on modern aircraft. With the June Bug we also see the first "shoulder yoke" aileron control. This metal frame device took the place of the simple rope arrangement on the White Wing and became a Curtiss trademark until the beginning of WWI. At that point Curtiss adopted the standard form of rudder and aileron control that is still used today (then in common use by French and British aircraft manufacturers). The fourth AEA airplane, the "Silver Dart" was the most successful of the four with over 200 flights to its credit. AEA member, John McCurdy took it North to become the first person to fly a heavier-than-air flying machine in Canada .
When the June Bug made the first "pre-announced", officially observed flight in America on July 4 th 1908 , Glenn Curtiss performed the first of three media events that would truly establish him as a major figure in early American aviation. This flight was a major "heads up!" for the American public. Here was an event that was witnessed either directly or indirectly, by tens of thousands of people. All of a sudden, the public was made aware of something that, four and a half years after Kitty Hawk, seemingly should have been "old hat", but wasn't - especially at Hammondsport on that July day. Most of those people felt that they were witnessing a miracle. About a year later, Curtiss sailed for France to compete for the Gordon Bennett Trophy at the first international air race at Rheims , France . He traveled light, taking an untested airplane and one extra propeller. By skillful flying, he managed to beat Louis Bleriot by 6 seconds to win this major event and the trophy (as mentioned earlier - at 46.5 MPH). Now Curtiss became known to hundreds of thousands - this quiet man, operating on a "shoestring". Nine months later, on May 29 th 1910 , Glenn Curtiss created a similar sensation in the states when he flew down the Hudson from Albany to New York City to win a $10,000 prize offered by the New York World newspaper. For that 150-mile flight, he was also awarded the Scientific American Trophy for the third time (the second time was for a 25 mile flight on July 17, 1909 ). After three wins, the trophy was his to keep. By now, Curtiss had gained notoriety on both sides of the Atlantic . He was faced with the choice of staying with motorcycles, or going into the airplane business full time. There is no doubt that his successes thus far had been largely brought about by his own personal courage and leadership. But Glenn Curtiss also placed a lot of faith in his associates (not forgetting to mention - a very supportive wife). He also saw first hand the sensation flying created in the public eye and he no doubt sensed the tremendous potential that lay ahead for that enterprise. He made his decision. The G. H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company faded away and the Curtiss Aeroplane Company came into being in 1911. This organization included engine and airframe manufacturing, flight school operations, and exhibition flying. Glenn was now in the flying business full time.
Today, Glenn H. Curtiss is remembered as the inventor of the "Hydroaeroplane" (or seaplane - US patent #1,170,965). His development of this type of aircraft began almost immediately in the fall of 1908 and by the winter of 1911, the Curtiss seaplane had become a reality. A connection with the US Navy had been established the previous fall through the success of Eugene Ely's flying his Curtiss airplane off the cruiser, USS Birmingham. This feat was followed in January by Ely's first arrester cable landing on the battleship, USS Pennsylvania. Shortly thereafter, Curtiss further impressed naval personnel by flying out to the same ship in his "seaplane", and landing alongside. The aircraft was hoisted aboard and he stayed for lunch. Following dessert, he was lowered back to the water, started the engine, and flew back to the mainland. These three significant demonstrations involving the US Naval warships pointed the way to future progress in seaplane aviation, anticipating battleships carrying seaplane "spotter" aircraft and ultimately, carrier-based air operations. Also, during that same winter, Curtiss trained US Naval Aviator # 1, Lt. Theodore G. Ellyson. Later in 1911, Curtiss sold the navy their first aircraft, the A-1. He is indeed the "Father of Naval Aviation". Curtiss went on to perfect the "Flying Boat"(literally, a boat with wings), which in a later form would be the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic (NC-4, May 27 th , 1919). At first, Curtiss built flying boats for the civilian market, but later his greatest customers were the navies of the US, Britain, Italy, and Russia. Curtiss Flying Boats, used for anti-submarine patrolling, were the only US-designed aircraft to be used in combat in WWI.
Curtiss will always be associated with his flying boats and the dawning of American naval aviation prior to the First World War. Considering that US aircraft production was in its infancy, the scope of his manufacturing operations through WWI were to become truly remarkable. By the end of that period, The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company had built, in addition to 2000 seaplanes, over 7000 of his JN-4D "Jenny" training aircraft, and over 15,000 engines. The Jenny trained 95% of the American and Canadian pilots in WWI. By 1918 he employed over 20,000 people, located in plants primarily in Buffalo, but with facilities as far away as Marblehead, MA and Garden City, NY. For this accomplishment, Curtiss is also referred to as the "Founder of the American Aircraft Industry".
One hundred years ago, he was a motorcycle manufacturer with a dozen employees. Seventeen years later, Glenn Curtiss, by this time a multi-millionaire, retired from the airplane business, moved to Florida and became a land developer. He went on to be instrumental in the establishment of Opa-Locka, Hialeah, and Miami Springs. In 1930, shortly before his untimely death at age 52, Glenn Hammond Curtiss was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree from the University of Miami for his extensive civic accomplishments - not bad for someone with an eighth grade education!
The complete story of Glenn H. Curtiss cannot be told in a few paragraphs. Excellent choices for additional reading are: Glenn Curtiss: Pioneer of Flight by C.R. Roseberry [Doubleday] and/or: Unlocking The Sky by Seth Shulman [Harper Collins].