Glenn Curtiss – the Father of Naval Aviation

Glenn CurtissGlenn Curtiss at the controls of his "June Bug" on July 4th, 1908

Glenn Hammond Curtiss circa 1909

Glenn Curtiss – The Father Of Naval Aviation

By David H. Marion.  If there is already a movie that has been made about Glenn Curtiss, would someone please tell me about it. If there isn’t one, Hollywood please take note; this guy was awesome and the story of his life would make a great movie!

Glenn Hammond Curtiss died tragically of complications from an emergency appendectomy in 1930 when he was only 52 years old. In spite of his premature demise, he made the most of his time on this earth and today he is known as “the father of Naval Aviation.” Even before that, he was for several years famous as “the fastest man in the world” because of his inventiveness in building racing motorcycles and his daring in riding them to speeds previously unheard of as well.

In the course of his varied professional careers as a bicycle courier, bicycle and motorcycle builder, aircraft engine designer and airplane builder, Glenn Curtiss was dubbed by no less than Alexander Graham Bell, himself the iconic inventor of the telephone, to be “the greatest motor expert” in the United States at that time. He won a Scientific American Trophy and monetary prize for making the first scheduled heavier-than-air airplane flight made in the U. S. for public demonstration. He was also eventually inducted into no less than four Halls of Fame – the National Aviation Hall of Fame, the Motorsports Hall of Fame, the Motorcycle Hall of Fame, and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Glenn Curtiss also founded numerous companies, engaged in civic service, developed several communities that eventually each became major metropolitan suburbs of Miami, Florida, and he was an early champion of conservation issues there too. He is also credited with co-inventing, along with business partner and half-brother G. Carl Adams, something called the Adams Motor “Bungalo” which was a forerunner of later “5th wheel” camping trailers and recreational vehicles.

The Adams Motor “Bungalo” Travel Trailer prototype

(It all makes me wonder what he liked to eat for breakfast – because I might have to get some whatever it was for myself!)

Glenn Curtiss was born on May 21, 1878 in Hammondsport, a small town of only about 600 to 700 residents* on the south end of Keuka Lake in the west-central “Finger Lakes” region of New York state. At that time, there were no automobiles or motorcycles, much less airplanes. Karl Benz (as in Mercedes Benz) for example built his very first automobile in Mannheim Germany in 1885, when Glenn Curtiss was seven years old.

Glenn Curtiss’ father Frank died when Glenn was only four years old. When Glenn’s younger sister Rutha was 6 years old, she contracted meningitis and it caused her to lose her hearing. As a result of her condition and her need for special care, Glenn’s mother Lua moved them all to Rochester. Glenn eventually dropped out of school after completing the 8th Grade and soon went to work at the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company (now Eastman Kodak.) He later became a messenger for Western Union and that got him started first with bicycles and later with motorcycles.

Glenn Curtiss got married in March 1898, shortly before his 20th birthday, and his new wife, Lena Pearl Neff, was only 17. He opened his own bicycle shop and by 1902 was adapting his own single-cylinder engines to their frames to create his own line of motorcycles. His reputation developed quickly and in 1904, he was approached by an “aeronaut” from California named Tom Baldwin who was interested in using a Curtiss engine to power his new airship. Later that year, Baldwin’s “California Arrow”, powered by a 9 hp Curtiss V-twin motorcycle engine, became the first successful dirigible to fly in the U. S.

Glenn Curtiss’ speed-record setting V-8 powered motorcycle

Just three years later, in 1907, Glenn Curtiss built a small V-8 powered motorcycle and set an unofficial world land speed record of over 136 mph on the sands of Ormond Beach, Florida. He was dubbed “the fastest man in the world” by the newspapers and his motorcycle record was not beaten until 1930. And that V-8 (269 cu. in.) powered motorcycle is now part of the Smithsonian’s collection.

His exploits with motorcycles and the fact that his engines had already been adapted to aircraft caught the attention of other inventors and fledgling aviators. Also in 1907, Curtiss was invited by Alexander Graham Bell to join his new Aerial Experiment Association along with Frederick W. “Casey” Baldwin, John A. D. McCurdy, and Thomas E. Selfridge. Together the croup designed and flew four successive new aircraft over a period of about three years, with Curtiss being the lead designer of the third one which was officially designated as “Aerodrome no. 3” but which became better known as the Curtiss “June Bug.”

Glenn Curtiss at the controls of his “June Bug” on July 4th, 1908

On July 4, 1908, Glenn Curtiss flew the June Bug to an altitude of over 5,000 feet and in so doing won the Scientific American Trophy and a prize of $2,500. It was considered to be the very first time a heavier-than-air aircraft successfully conducted a public flight according to a pre-announced schedule – in other words, the very first time that an aircraft took off on time when they said it would (and the airlines have been running late ever since!)

On May 29, 1910, Curtiss made more headlines and won more prize money by making the very first “long distance” flight between two major cities in the U. S. by flying from Albany, NY to New York City. The feat earned him another $10,000 in prize money that had been offered by publisher Joseph Pulitzer – so in effect among his other notable feats Curtiss was also a Pulitzer Prize winner as well. That flight covered 137 miles in 4 hours and required 2 refueling stops along the way.

Starting in June 1910, Curtiss began an association with the U. S. Navy when he demonstrated a simulated aerial bombardment for two officers while flying near his home in Hammondsport. In August, he also helped them demonstrate for others the possibility of shooting at ground targets from the air as well. Just a few months after that, on November 14, 1910, Curtiss employee and demonstration pilot Eugene Ely launched a Curtiss pusher aircraft off of a temporary platform built on the bow of the light cruiser USS Birmingham as it was anchored at Hampton Roads, Virginia and he went on to land at the Norfolk Navy Yard nearby.

Following the successful launching of an aircraft from a ship, Ely made the very first aircraft landing on a ship on January 18, 1911 – this time around demonstrating the feat for the Pacific Fleet by landing on the USS Pennsylvania anchored in San Francisco Bay.

A replica of the Curtiss A-1 Triad – owned and flown by the Glenn Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, NY

In conjunction with his game-changing demonstrations for the U. S. Navy, toward the end of 1910, Curtiss also set up a training operation in San Diego and began teaching flying to both Army and Navy personnel there, including Lt. Theodore Ellyson who went on to become U. S. Naval Aviator no. 1. The site of that “winter camp” as it was dubbed at the time later became part of the massive Naval Air Station North Island, itself regarded as “the Birthplace of Naval Aviation.”

Also during the early part of 1911, Curtiss began focusing his efforts to design and build some of the very first practical aircraft floats and to fit them to one of his Model D aircraft. He succeeded in doing so and proved the concept by both taking off from and then later landing again on the water next to North Island on February 26, 1911. Within five months, Curtiss was officially a manufacturer of Naval aircraft after selling the U. S. Navy its very first airplane, the Curtiss A-1 Triad. In addition to being a floatplane, it was also equipped with retractable wheels, making it the very first amphibian too. Widespread recognition of its significance was reflected in the fact that the type was eventually purchased as well by the naval forces of Russia, Japan, Germany, and Great Britain – and by the fact that its design won Curtiss one more industry accolade – the Collier Trophy.

John Cyril Porte and Glenn Curtiss

Before the Federal Aviation Administration and even the Civil Aeronautics Agency, the first at least semi-official sanctioning body for aviation in the U. S. was the Aero Club of America. On June 8, 1911, it issued the very first batch of formal pilot’s licenses and U. S. pilot’s license no. 1 went to Glenn Curtiss. Ironically, because the new pilot’s licenses were issued alphabetically, Curtiss’ de facto rival, Wilbur Wright, nominally the very first actual pilot of an airplane in history, was in fact issued license no. 5.

In 1912, Curtiss began collaborating with a British naval officer named John Cyril Porte with the common goal of designing and building an aircraft capable of crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The Daily Mail newspaper in the UK had offered one more prize (of ₤10,000) to the first person or team to succeed in doing so. The first aircraft that Curtiss and Porte conceived was dubbed the “Flying Fish” and it was one of the first if not actually the very first aircraft to be classified as a “flying boat” wherein the fuselage itself was adapted to float directly on the water. It was also the very first to incorporate the essential feature of a hull “step” to break the suction or surface tension of the water during take-off.

Both Porte and Curtiss quickly realized that the flying boat configuration offered many benefits to any potential transatlantic contender. Given the state of the aviation art at that time, it seemed obvious that a seaplane stood the best chance of safely navigating the ocean and a flying boat in particular better suited the large size that would be required to carry enough fuel to make the trip. On their second effort, Curtiss and Porte built the iconic “America” twin-engine flying boat in 1914, but their transatlantic project was put on hold by the start of the First World War.

An airworthy replica of the Curtiss America flying boat over Keuka Lake, NY – from the Glen Curtiss Museum

Even though Porte had to return to England to resume his naval duties, he convinced the Royal Navy to purchase a batch of a dozen new Curtiss-built flying boats, dubbed the H-series, for the war effort based on the design of the America. The first two aircraft, designated as models H-2, were actually commandeered by the Royal Navy, but they eventually paid Curtiss for them. They were followed by a third H-2 and then another 11 improved models H-4, some of which were actually assembled in Britain by boat-builder Samuel Edgar Saunders. Saunders’ company of course became a notable seaplane manufacturer in its own right as Saunders-Roe starting in 1929.

The Curtiss H-series flying boats were so successful in Royal Navy service, performing anti-submarine and maritime patrol duties and so forth, the Royal Navy followed up their initial order with an order for another 50 such aircraft. They also convinced Curtiss to license production of his designs in England and allowed Porte to begin to produce a continually refined set of essentially the same design that were subsequently known as the Felixstowe F.1 and F.2 series. The lessons learned during wartime operations were shared with Curtiss too and that permitted him to continue to refine and improve his own H-series aircraft being built back in the U. S. too.

A Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” in flight

The war effort spurred furious progress in all aspects of aviation and in addition to his seaplane designs for both the British and American navies, Curtiss was called upon as well to design a new, 2-seat, basic trainer for the U. S. Army. As with this earlier motorcycles and seaplanes, his touch was golden – the aircraft that he created became known as the model JN-4 “Jenny and literally thousands of examples, a number previously unheard of in terms of aircraft production, were built for the U. S. and Allied forces. The success of Curtiss’ aircraft company was such that by 1916, it reportedly had 18,000 workers in Buffalo, New York, along with another 3,000 based back in Hammondsport.

In spite of the war though, Curtiss continued to plan for a renewed effort to build an aircraft capable of flying across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1917, he started working on new design for the U. S. Navy that became known as the Navy Curtiss NC series.  I will tell the important story of the NC-4 next time around….

Dave Marion is the Technical Content Editor at As A&P and IA with 29 years of experience in aircraft maintenance, he is also a Commercial Pilot with Airplane, Single & Multi-Engine, and Instrument ratings. He has a BA from Colgate University in 1984 and also graduated cum laude from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (DAB) with a BS in Aviation Technology in 1990. He can be reached along with all of the editors via E-Mail: [email protected]

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1 Comment on "Glenn Curtiss – the Father of Naval Aviation"

  1. That is a amazing piece of history and he definitely made the most of his life.

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