- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2010


By William F. Trimble

Naval Institute Press, $37.95, 214 pages

Reviewed by Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn

In that the 100th anniversary of naval aviation will be celebrated on a near-daily basis across the nation in 2011, “Hero of the Air” is a most timely publication. It was in 1911 that the Navy ordered its very first airplane, an A-1, a “Triad,” an aircraft that could land on and launch from either land or water and was built by Glenn Curtiss.

Readers may be surprised to learn that the Navy bought its first aircraft from Curtiss and not the Wright brothers. After all, the Wrights had been first into the air with a fixed-wing aircraft and had accumulated more flying hours than almost any other aviator in Europe or America. Yet the Wrights, in an almost paranoid effort to protect their patents, were extremely conservative when it came to races and exhibitions.

At the same time, Curtiss had bent over backward to cooperate with the Navy by first supplying one of his aircraft and an exhibition pilot, Eugene Ely, to land on and then take off from temporary platforms on the USS Pennsylvania and the USS Birmingham. Then, when the Navy showed little interest in operating from platforms on ships, he readily adapted by devising and demonstrating procedures for hoisting “hydroaeroplanes” onto and off ships, thereby not compromising the big guns.

Finally, Curtiss developed close personal relationships with the Navy’s aviation-oriented decision-makers and, later, their young pilots. Thus, the way was paved for that first purchase.

Glenn Curtiss was born in Hammondsport, N.Y. Like the Wright brothers, he started his business career with a bicycle shop, but he went beyond building and repair - he raced the bicycles. From bicycles it was a natural transition to motorcycles and motorcycle racing. He was good at it, and in 1906 at Ormond Beach, Fla., he set an unofficial record over a measured course at 136 mph. Other motorcycle-racing and hill-climbing records followed, but speed was in his blood, and what better way to go faster than in a flying machine?

Coincidentally, Alexander Graham Bell also had gotten the flying bug. He organized the Aerial Experiment Association and asked Curtiss to join. This gave Curtiss access to both money and political support, and he was off into the aircraft- and engine-manufacturing business in Hammondsport.

The AEA organized a number of efforts to popularize aviation in general and the organization in particular. Most of these centered on races and exhibitions where Curtiss, his machines and his team were almost immediately successful. He quickly became a presence on aeroplane exhibition and racing circuits in the United States and Europe. He won several of the big-money prizes of the day and became exceedingly well known.

Because of Curtiss’ prominence, and in light of the reluctance of the Wrights to appear in exhibitions or even to push their product very much, when the Navy became seriously interested in aviation, it was to Curtiss that it turned. He ran experiments for the Navy from his aviation camp at North Island near San Diego and even offered to train a naval officer to fly.

The Navy named two pilots for Curtiss to train and, just to be sure things were kept even, also requested the Wrights to train two. Thus, in due course, the first and third Naval aviators learned to fly the “Curtiss way;” the second and fourth learned the “Wright way.” There was indeed a difference.

The Wrights had developed a system of wing warping - that is, actually twisting the wings to give lateral stability and ability to make a coordinated turn. Curtiss had installed small wings auxiliary to the main wings, which amounted to today’s ailerons to maintain stability and turn. Wing warping required the movement of a control stick (in addition to another control stick to move the elevators and a wheel to move the rudders) while Curtiss’ ailerons were controlled by means of lines attached to a harness so that to turn, the pilot would lean in the direction he wanted to go, much like on a motorcycle.

Not surprisingly, it took some effort for a pilot trained on one system to learn the other system. The difference in principle between wing warping and ailerons was, by the way, a central argument in a long-standing Wright-Curtiss patent dispute.

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