Sunday, March 20, 2016

Legacy of the World's Fastest Man

"You came in that thing? You're braver than I thought."
  - Princess Leia to Han Solo, Star Wars
 A Visit to the Glenn Curtiss Museum

When asked to name early aviation pioneers, any member of the general public might be quick to cite exploits of the brothers Wright, but if pressed to name others, they might leap ahead several years and drop names of famous flyers like Lindbergh or Earhart. But it was New York's Glenn Curtiss who brought a deliberate practicality to the design of airplanes. Practical thinking was absolutely necessary for anyone not named Wilbur or Orville because, after tenuously mastering the art of controlling a ship in three dimensional space, the Wright Brothers promptly patented their wing warping approach and aggressively defended that intellectual property.

Curtiss was the ultimate gearhead of his age and was mostly known for his expertise in engines and motorcycles. His exploits on two wheels earned him the moniker "fastest man in the world" from newspapers during the first decade of the twentieth century.

All 28 of us! Photo courtesy of Tony.

On February 27, 2016, a few members from the Williamson Flying Club (above) made a road trip to Hammondsport, NY on the south end of Keuka Lake to visit the museum dedicated to Hammondsport's favorite son.

It was Duane who made the observation comparing the museum to an attic. Sure, there were exhibits with placards like any other museum, but the place was literally packed with an eclectic mix of artifacts relevant to Curtiss and his era: airplanes, boats, motorcycles, cars, and much more. In a place like this, a keen eye is likely to reveal a treasure long unnoticed by other visitors.

The Curtiss America was a flying boat so large that I could not find a suitable angle to get all 72 feet of its full wingspan into frame. The version in the museum is a faithful replica of Curtiss' 1914 flying boat. This replica was completed in 2007 and made its first flight from Keuka Lake just like its namesake.

I peered into the aft cabin, admiring the craftmanship.

The airplane used two OXX-6 engines, variants on the famous Curtiss OX-5.

Among the details of this aircraft that caught my eye, this tiny wooden propeller driving a generator for electrical power.

As someone who built his own mass spectrometer in grad school, I always enjoy seeing lathes and mills. This Lodge and Shipley lathe is typical of what Curtiss' factories in Hammondsport and Buffalo would have used to manufacture engines during World War I.

This monstrosity is a World War II era Allison 3420. It is aptly named considering that it is basically two 12-cylinder liquid cooled Allison 1710 engines cobbled together to produce 3000 horsepower.

The Allison 1710 was commonly found in the Curtiss P-40, an early WWII fighter. This version is a 3/4 scale replica, though the museum is restoring a crashed P-40 in its restoration shop.

The Mercury Aircraft Company of Hammondsport, NY was founded in 1921 by former members of the Curtiss Company. One of their designs, a 1929 Mercury Chic T-2, had a number of interesting design features. For instance, the wing structure was entirely fabricated from tubular steel and featured full span ailerons.

The aircraft featured a flying tail, much like Warrior 481.

The fuselages on most aircraft  of the era tapered horizontally toward the tail feathers, but the Chic features a striking vertical taper.

Mercury also designed an air racer, the S-1, in 1931.

The Curtiss-Wright CW-1 Junior was a 1931 era sport plane. It was very basic. Note the vertical metal plate just forward of the windscreen? That's a pressure plate tied to the airspeed indicator. See? Basic.

The quintessential Curtiss aircraft: the JN-4 "Jenny". This aircraft was produced starting in 1915 to train American Army pilots during World War I (95% of them, according to some sources) and, after the war, morphed into a popular barnstormer.

The Jenny was powered by the liquid-cooled V-8 Curtiss OX-5 engine, the first mass-produced American aircraft engine. Appropriately enough, I have never seen so many OX-5s in one museum as I saw at the Glenn Curtiss Museum.

This is a "headless" (no elevator on the front) Curtiss Model D, known as the "Curtiss Pusher". Produced circa 1911, a Curtiss Pusher was the first aircraft to land and launch from a ship, which helped Curtiss earn the title of "Father of Naval Aviation" in addition to his pioneering work on flying boats.

But, wow, the pilot is really sitting out there. From my perspective, it would really take some nerve to fly something like this (hence the quote at the head of this post). What's amazing to me is that Curtiss was producing the significantly more modern Jenny just four years later.

I was amused by the conical aerodynamic fairing added to the fuel tank hung above the OX-5. On a contraption of wires, struts, and braces, did this fairing really make the airframe any cleaner?

The Curtiss Model E (circa 1911) was known as "The Triad" for its land, sea, and air capabilities.

A close-up of an aileron from the Model E (or, as Alexander Graham Bell called it, the "horizontal rudder"). This design element was the key to getting around the Wright Brothers' patents (even though the Wrights bitterly contested it). Roll control has been accomplished for fixed wing airplanes by aileron ever since.

I admired the elegance of the wooden hull of this 1912 Curtiss Model F Seagull. As one goes from the Model D to E to F (spanning, really, only a couple of years), the refinements are striking even though the basic design changed little (they're all biplanes with high-mounted pusher engines). In this series of aircraft, it is possible to see Curtiss' fertile mind working.

This ship is not a Curtiss design at all. It is a 7/8 scale replica of a British S.E.5. Why is it here? Local interest. It was built by Tony Mangos in 1972 at the Williamson-Sodus Airport. Many of the club members made a point to stop and visit with this aircraft that they remembered as a once-active member of our airport.

A Standard J-1, which was originally built as a Curtiss Jenny knock-off, but developed a horrible reputation because their stock Hall-Scott engines had a propensity to catch fire. And, really, it seems like there might be a better place to stick that radiator!

This is a replica of the Aerial Experiment Association's June Bug, designed primarily by Glenn Curtiss. Curtiss was drawn into the AEA by Alexander Graham Bell primarily because of his engine knowledge. On July 4, 1908, Glenn Curtiss made the first publicly pre-announced flight in America of a heavier than air flying machine, winning the Scientific American trophy. This ship represents Curtiss' first significant foray into aeronautics. And, yes, those forward support pieces are indeed bamboo.

The 1919 Curtiss Oriole featured a rounded wooden fuselage and, from the looks of things, dreadful forward visibility.

There is much more to the Glenn Curtiss Museum than airplanes, of course. Here is a fine example of a Ford Model T Touring Sedan.

The hood ornament caught my eye. I did not recall that the Tin Lizzie featured such elegant sculptures on their snouts, but maybe it is a Touring edition upgrade.

We spent about two hours at the museum before the masses grew hungry and we departed for lunch. Two hours was not enough time to see everything...I need to return.

Lunch was at Bully Hill Vineyards, high above Hammondsport and overlooking Keuka Lake. In fact, the road leading to it climbed so steeply away from town that I drove past it because, to this Midwesterner's way of thinking, it could not possibly be a public road. I was wrong.

The view of Keuka Lake was stunning (even if this picture is not).

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my exploration of Glenn Curtiss' virtual attic. The museum was undergoing a major renovation during our visit, which limited our access to some exhibits (the motorcycles, in particular). When it is complete, I'll be back.


  1. Thanks for sharing! This would be a nice road trip and tour of the museum. Maybe the winery does tours too, a nice way for the Bride to enjoy the weekend get-away.