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The Man Who Pinned Wings on the Navy
July 1961 Popular Science

June 1941 Popular Science
June 1941 Science Popular Science - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic over early technology. See articles from Popular Science, published 1872 - 2021. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.


The Man Who Pinned Wings on the Navy

Just 50 years ago, naval aviation was born - fathered by Glenn Curtiss, inspired mechanic, inventor, and U. S. pilot No.1

By Gardner Soule

The man at the controls of the plane pictured at right will be much in the news this summer.

His name - Glenn Hammond Curtiss - was on the No. 1 air-pilot license issued by the U.S. He died 31 years ago. Why is he making headlines in 1961? Partly on account of the unique plane he's shown in - but mainly because he was the father of naval aviation.

Naval aviation is 50 years old this year, and the U.S. Navy is staging a handsome array of celebration events.

The plane that Curtiss is maneuvering in the photo was the U.S. Navy's No. A-1, the first airplane the Navy ever owned, the first of the hundreds of thousands that were to influence the course of two world wars and to spread Navy wings over the globe.

The photo was made in July, 1911, exactly 50 years ago, a few days before Curtiss, who had built the A-1, delivered his craft to the Navy.

The A-1, also called the Triad, was the first plane to be at home in the air, on the water (she's on Lake Keuka, New York, here), and on land. Notice the landing wheels tucked under the wings.

The man next to Curtiss will also receive attention this year. He is Lieutenant T. G. (Spuds) Ellyson, USN, who flew with Curtiss to become the first naval observer in the air and also, tutored by Curtiss, naval aviator No. 1.

To help celebrate, the Institute of Aeronautical Science is building, with the Navy's assistance, two replicas of the A-1. One will fly at the convention of the Institute at San Diego, Calif., in August.

The life of Glenn Curtiss, how he pinned wings on the Navy, and what happened to him afterwards are depicted in the drawings that follow here and on the next two pages .

A Hunger for Speed Curtiss was born at Hammondsport, in New York's Finger Lakes country, on May 21, 1878. A dominant theme of his life appeared early: He loved speed. He made a skate-sail to turn himself into a one-boy ice boat on frozen Lake Keuka. He also liked to tinker. Out of a cigar box, he made a camera; with spools, nails, tin, and wire, a telegraph set.

Glenn Powers a Bicycle One day Curtiss met a maan pedaling a bike up a hill. "Glenn," he said, "I'm going to give the thing up until they get something to push it." A few small gasoline engines were appearing. Curtiss contrived one for a bike. The carburetor was a tomato can. Going to the post office the motor wouldn't start; he pedaled. Coming back, it worked.

He Takes to the Air Townsmen in Hammondsport chipped in so Curtiss, in his 20s, could build a motorcycle factory. Curtiss always demonstrated his own products: He won races, hill climbs. Thomas S. Baldwin, frustrated because he had no engines for his dirigibles, bought some from Curtiss. With no training, Curtiss went up alone in a dirigible and landed it - his first trip aloft.

Fastest Human Curtiss built a 40-hp., 8-cylinder engine for a dirigible, decided to try it on a monster motorcycle with an auto tire on the rear wheel. At Ormond Beach, Fla., on January 24, 1907, he opened it up over a two-mile run, whizzed over a mile course at 137 m.p.h. Record was not official; engine was "too big" for a motorcycle. But Curtiss was now the "fastest man on earth."

His First Plane Trip Alexander Graham Bell, who had invented the .telephone, thought that heavier-than-air craft might fly from Boston to New York. He had Curtiss add engines to gliderlike planes made of wire, cotton cloth, and sticks. On May 22, 1908, in the White Wing, Curtiss first went up in a plane: "I flew 1,017 feet in 19 seconds, and landed without damage in a plowed field."

First Try at Seaplane Most early planes landed and took off on runners - (not wheels). Crackups were common. Curtiss added a tricycle landing gear. But he had another idea: Why not take off and land on water? To a plane named the Loon, he added canoelike pontoons. "We made many attempts to rise from the water," he said. But the Loon could never taxi fast enough.

First Hydroplane At San Diego, Curtiss struggled to develop a plane that would rise from and land on water. Fabre of France had taken off, but he'd cracked up on landing. Curtiss tried 50 changes in shape and position of pontoons. On Jan. 26, 1911, while taxiing, he found himself racing for shore. He jerked the stick, took off, landed. His helpers turned handsprings for joy.

Navy Gets Air Arm The Secretary of the Navy had told Curtiss he'd be interested in a plane that could alight on water and be hoisted aboard a ship. On Feb. 17, 1911, Curtiss flew across San Diego bay, landed beside the U.S.S. Pennsylvania, and was lifted aboard by ship's crane. A few minutes later, plane was lowered and he took off. Payoff: The Navy ordered Curtiss planes.

Fastest Aloft First International Aviation meet was at Rheims, France, in 1909. Curtiss hurried together a plane with a 50·hp. engine. He had no chance to try it out, got it to Rheims packed in boxes as hand baggage. He flew 20 kilometers at 46.5 m.p.h., beating Bleriot (who had just flown the English channel), won Gordon Bennett trophy, was hailed as "fastest man on earth and skies."

He Scrounges Gasoline The New York World offered $10,0'00 for the first flight between Albany and New York - 152 miles. On May 30, 1910, Curtiss started down Hudson River in a plane with wheels plus pontoon - in case of forced river landing. He set down en route and borrowed gas from a motorist, then flew on to New York, making first U.S. intercity flight.

Over the Ocean On May 8, 1919, Curtiss watched from the beach at Rockaway Point, N.Y., as three four-engine flying boats, the NC-1, 3, and 4 (NC stood for Navy-Curtiss) took off to try hopping the Atlantic. The 1 and 3 were forced down at sea, unable to continue flight. NC·4 landed at the Azores, flew on to Lisbon. An airplane had flown across an ocean for the first time.

Wings for the Navy In May, 1930, 20 years to the day after his Albany-New York flight, Glenn H. Curtiss piloted a 20-passenger Curtiss-Wright plane over the same route. At three a.m. July 23, 1930, he died peacefully. He was buried in his home town of Hammondsport. Had he lived till today, reaching 83, he would have seen Navy wings routinely fly over every ocean.




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