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BOOK REVIEW: Remembering an aviation pioneer
HERO OF THE AIR: GLENN CURTISS AND THE BIRTH OF NAVAL AVIATION
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.
Curtiss continued to build planes and engines of ever-improving performance for the Navy and some for the Army, too. Meanwhile, as his business expanded and new factories were built, the intrepid inventor found that his skills of yesteryear didn't exactly apply to the rapidly modernizing aircraft industry. Where once a talented mechanic could merely measure, cut and fit, engineering science had overtaken him.
Curtiss' planes were still among the best, but his customers, particularly the Navy, soon came to understand that he needed some solid engineering help. Fortunately, the Navy had such officers, trained at MIT and backed by successive directors of naval aviation, together with the technically oriented early naval aviators themselves.
With that help and more, the company prevailed, and during World War I, Curtiss produced more than 5,000 engines and aircraft. Most went to the Army for training, but those that went to the Navy, largely twin-engine flying boats, saw service on anti-submarine patrols operating from England, Ireland, France and Italy.
After the war, Curtiss entered into a project to build a flying boat big enough to fly from North America to Europe. The result, in 1919, was that the Navy NC-4, manufactured by a Navy-Curtiss joint venture, became the first aircraft ever to fly from North America to Europe - actually from Long Island to England by way of Newfoundland, the Azores and Lisbon.
After the war, and the success of the NC-4, Curtiss turned again to aerial racing, and his aircraft did indeed win some notable prizes; however, with demand for aircraft diminishing, his attention drifted away from aviation, and his company was taken over by others.
Today, the Curtiss name persists as the highly regarded manufacturer of aircraft engines. The company has not built an aircraft since early in World War II, but the genius and spirit of Glenn Curtiss lives on. He will forever be known as one of the pre-eminent pioneers of aviation and holds a special place in the history of naval aviation. It's fitting that as the 100th anniversary approaches, we remember Glenn Curtiss' contributions as recorded in this well-researched, well-written and most readable book.
Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn resides in Alexandria and is president of the Naval Historical Foundation and the Association of Naval Aviation.
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The president fiddles at his domestic altar while the world burns
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