02 Feb Glenn Curtiss Day at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome
Like a series of undulating waves rolling down the Hudson River Valley’s west side, the Catskill Mountains, somehow losing momentum, yielded to the much lower Shawagunk, Schunnemunk, and Bear Mountain peaks, descending into the Palisades, threshold to Manhattan. A century ago, on May 29, 1910, Glenn Hammond Curtiss, navigating his frail, Albany Flier biplane, forged an aerial link along this route between Albany and New York.
Then in the midst of a legal battle with the Wright Brothers for allegedly using their patented wing-warping method for banking and thus forbidden to continue selling any of his own aircraft, Curtiss, sinking in the quicksand of bankruptcy, saw a single rope of salvation in the $10,000 Hudson-Fulton prize offered by Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, for the first person to fly from Manhattan to Albany, in either direction, with a maximum of two stops.
Although Curtiss never feared competition-in fact, he thrived on it-the intended course was the antithesis of his numerous previous flights: unlike these prior, controlled circuits and aerial demonstrations, the inter-city connection was fraught with significant obstacles, including unfamiliarity with the route, an overwater course, unknown wind and weather patterns, and height obstructions, aside from the fact that technology had been insufficiently mature-and fuel capacity simply insufficient-to permit a long-range aerial journey of 150 miles.
Nevertheless, perhaps desperate circumstances lead to desperate measures, and which of the two had been the more perilous was a matter of debate: the flight or his life.
One of the first solutions-to both-had been to design an aircraft which could transcend them after extensive research and analysis, entailing a ground-based trip along the Hudson River. Based upon its prevailing, northwesterly winds and relative lack of man-made obstructions, he decided to make the flight in a southerly direction, departing from Albany. Should he lose his engine immediately after take off, he had reasoned, his chances of a safe, emergency landing markedly improved in comparison to those offered by a New York departure.
The airplane intended to tackle the distance, appropriately named “Albany Flier,” featured a bamboo pole frame; two canvas-covered wings; interplane ailerons; a dual, forward elevating plane; an open cockpit; a wooden propeller in pusher configuration; a tricycle undercarriage; and, in the event of a water landing, cork-filled pontoons. The engine was the most powerful Curtiss had ever designed.
Van Rennselaer Island, located on the southern edge of Albany, was a flat, obstructionless plain offering the most optimum conditions for take off, and the aircraft, transported in section-containing boxes, was assembled there several days before the actual event. Its exact day, however, had been subjected to winds and weather-and Curtiss’s assessment of them. Resultantly, he targeted dawn because it usually brought the calmest conditions, but winds proved too formidable on three consecutive days until Sunday, May 29.
With the sky just opening its eyes to dawn, he equally opened his and concluded that the ideal conditions had presented themselves, subsequently traveling to the designated departure point by rail and changing into his flight gear in the makeshift tent he had erected at it. He later shared that the delays, culminating in the day’s calm, clear conditions, led him to conclude, “it was now or never.”
Starting his engine, performing a final check, and accelerating in the direction of the wind, as determined by the smoke rising from nearby factory stacks, he deflected the canard elevating surfaces and the Albany Flier surrendered to the air at 0702. For 1910, the journey had been the equivalent of today’s global circumnavigation.
A white flag, raised from a warehouse, signaled the airplane’s airborne status and alerted the New York Times-chartered train, carrying Curtiss’s wife and members of his team, to commence its own flight-following movement on New York Central’s east side Hudson River Line tracks.
Climbing to a 700-foot initial altitude, Curtiss cruised over the middle of the Hudson, as if it had been an open, blue road which led to Manhattan, later expressing, “I felt an immense sense of relief. The motor sounded like music.”
Paralleling the train, the Albany Flier maintained about 50 mph in flawlessly-blue skies, but the primitive bird’s lack of cockpit instrumentation forced Curtiss to sublimate senses to readings: speed was measured by the strength of the wind and altitude was an estimation of height above the ground.
The Poughkeepsie Bridge, hung across the river and located 87 miles from Albany, moved into view, roughly marking the journey’s halfway point.
Bouncing on Camelot’s open field at 0826, the Albany Flier decelerated at its first refueling stop, where prearranged gas and oil should have awaited it, but the flight’s first hitch had materialized, with neither to be found.
Two New Jersey motorists driving their touring car on the nearby road offered to transfer eight gallons of gas and oil into spare cans and present them to Curtiss, who was now surrounded by hundreds of onlookers and his own team from the train, which had intermittently pulled on to a siding near Camelot.
Re-accelerating, he commenced the second leg of his flight, following the trees and turning south over the middle of the Hudson before climbing to a considerable altitude in order to gauge the prevailing air currents. But a sudden gust, causing a lateral axis upset close to the water’s surface, almost resulted in one of his wingtips skimming it.
The currents, however, proved to be mild in comparison to those encountered 20 miles south of Poughkeepsie, where the 15-mile-long gorge forming the Hudson Highlands near Storm King Mountain and Breakneck Ridge created a fierce, treacherous crosswind which tilted the frail, strut and wire airframe sideways. Temporarily losing control and almost thrown from his open perch, Curtiss became more observer than pilot as the airplane plunged 100 feet.
Confirming his calculations and course, Manhattan Island inched into view. But, realizing that his oil quantity had teetered on empty (due to a later discovered leak), he resisted temptation to continue closing the gap toward it, seeking a suitable landing location before his engine began to seize instead.
Executing an approach to a sloping lawn some 100 feet above the Hudson at the northernmost tip of Manhattan, he alighted on the estate of William B. Isham at 1035, having covered 137 miles in 2.5 hours at an average, 55 mph-speed, and Isham’s daughter and husband, current occupants, greeted him on the mansion’s lawn. Because it had been within city limits, they officially welcomed him to New York, but Curtiss, never to fall from his competitive edge, would not consider his journey complete until he touched down at its intended destination-Governors Island.
Replenished with engine-lubricating oil, the Albany Flier, initiating its precarious acceleration roll over the sloping field, arced into the crystal blue for the third time at 1142, quickly penetrating Manhattan with its imposing skyscrapers and crowd-thronged streets eager to witness the historic event.
The Statue of Liberty, symbolic of American freedom, served as a secondary symbol to Curtiss-the finishing line of his singular, aerial race which no others had chosen, nor had the ability, to enter. Banking westward, he “circled the lady with the torch,” setting course for Governors Island.
Ultimately touching down on its parade ground just after noon amid receptive cheers by the US Army personnel based there, he completed the 152-mile flight from Albany to New York after a two-hour, 51-minute aerial suspension, the longest-distance, cross-country, public flight in the US, earning the $10,000 Pulitzer Prize.
Charles Munn, publisher of Scientific American magazine, later proclaimed that the river would forever after he associated with three famous names: Henry Hudson, its founder; Robert Fulton, who revolutionized steamboat travel on it; and Glenn Curtiss, who aerially conquered it.
The US’s counterpart to Louis Bleriot’s English Channel crossing the previous year, the flight had demonstrated the airplane’s potential and practicality to the world.
On October 9, the Hudson River Valley Institute (HRVI) at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum of Hammondsport, and Cole Palen’s Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome collectively sponsored an event to mark the 100th anniversary of Curtiss’s historic Hudson River flight, thus fulfilling the educational mission commonality of all three.
Commenting on the event, Trafford Doherty, Executive Director of the Curtiss Museum, said, “It is a privilege to come to the Hudson Valley to celebrate the aviation achievements of Glenn Hammond Curtiss. I look forward to this opportunity to share with you the man who is considered to be the ‘Father of the American aircraft industry’ and ‘Father of naval aviation.'”
According to Colonel (Ret.) James M Johnson, Executive Director of the Hudson River Valley Institute, “This will be a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Curtiss’s historic flight in his Albany Flier down the Hudson River Valley from Albany to Manhattan and recognition of those who strive to preserve the memory of his innovative spirit.”
Hugh Schoelzel, Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome Air Shows President, labeled the event “a celebration of Glenn Curtiss and, specifically, the 100th anniversary of his Hudson Valley flight. It opened the door to the practical airplane as a form of common transportation. Prior to this, aircraft were used for experimentation and flying round the field for fun.”
Live music, traditionally associated with Old Rhinebeck’s fall festival, marked the occasion. Several pumpkin displays next to the Aerodrome Snack Stand marked the season.
The grass field, flanked on either side by trees nipped by autumn’s appetite and top-tinged with glowing golds, ruby reds, and burnt-oranges, provided the wind-swept stage where the operational Curtiss designs were showcased and demonstrated to the almost 700 supported by the wooden bench seats on the side.
As the sun arced toward the multi-colored trees and shadows stretched across the grass, a large, white tent, located in the courtyard formed by the Royal Aircraft Factory, A. V. Roe and Company, Louis Bleriot, and Fokker Flugzeugwerke hangars and surrounded by a tri-configuration of Curtiss aircraft, provided the venue for the second part of the day’s events, including speeches entitled “The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome” and “Glenn Curtiss: The Man and his Legacy,” respectively given by Hugh Schoelzel and Trafford Doherty.
Ranking among the most important and influential aviation pioneers, Glenn Curtiss had been a “fiercely competitive person,” according to Doherty. “He loved speed. He didn’t always invent something, but instead rebuilt or redesigned it, and made it better.”
Literally rising from the ground for the first time on June 28, 1907 in a dirigible, he later became one of five instrumental figures in the Alexander Graham Bell-led Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), whose first design, designated the “Red Wing,” made what was considered to be the first public flight in the US when it climbed to 300 feet, despite its lateral axis control deficiency.
Remedying this shortcoming, the succeeding White Wing featured banking capability with triangular-shaped ailerons actuated by rope-connected body motion of the pilot. It made numerous flights, the longest of which had spanned 1,000 feet.
Dismantled after a series of hard landings, it formed the basis of the third evolution, the June Bug, which incorporated the White Wing’s engine and many of its parts, but introduced a shoulder yoke aileron actuation method. It earned the Scientific American trophy on July 4, 1908, when the bow-winged biplane performed a publicly observed fight of one kilometer, although the 5,090 feet actually covered had been about one-and-a-half times the required distance.
The Silver Dart, the last of the four designs, became the first heavier-than-air airplane to fly in Canada, and made more than 200 successful flights.
Both Curtiss’s life and his aircraft designs were the product of his extreme character traits. “He took calculated risks,” Doherty continued. “He was extremely brave.”
By World War I, despite his patent-related lawsuit with the Wright Brothers, he had become the premier aircraft manufacturer and was therefore “considered the founder of the American aircraft industry,” Doherty stated.
“He made the seaplane practical and invented the flying boat. Ninety-five percent of World War I pilots in the US and Canada trained in the JN-4 Jenny. He was incredibility mechanically intuitive.”
“And now, the Curtiss Museum and Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome are linked by his legacy and airplanes,” he concluded.
Those airplanes, numbering five in the Old Rhinebeck collection, represented all three pioneer, World War I, and Lindbergh eras.
The Model A, for instance-a pusher biplane belonging to the former category and itself based upon the earlier Albany Flier-was built by Cole Palen in 1957, but crashed at an air show before being restored in 1975 and placed on long-term loan to the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in Manhattan. It is currently being displayed at the Ira G. Ross Aerospace Museum in Buffalo under a similar arrangement.
The subsequent Model D, which was positioned only feet from the lecture tent and whose controls were demonstrated as Schoelzel highlighted them to the group in attendance, “is an extension of normal body movement, an outgrowth of a very mechanically-minded person,” according to Herb Gregory, who has conducted high-speed taxi maneuvers with the type for Old Rhinebeck’s spectators for three years. “Their method of activation was gleaned from his motorcycle experience.”
“The control method of the Model D is Curtiss’s signature system from the AEA days, including the June Bug, until 1914,” Doherty had shared.
“The aircraft is made of bamboo,” Schoelzel added. “It has its original OX-5 engine and was the first factory-built airplane of any quantity.”
The Curtiss JN-4 Jenny, of significantly greater dimensions and belonging to the World War I era, was designed by Benjamin D. Thomas, an Englishman formerly with the Sopwith Aviation Company, and commissioned by Glenn Curtiss, incorporating the best features of the Model J and the Model N trainers to produce the “JN,” or “Jenny,” series introduced in 1915.
Although the JN-1 and -2, varying in upper and lower wingspans, aileron number, and control method, had been produced in limited quantities, the First Aero Squadron of the US Signals Corps operated eight of the latter, first taking delivery of them in July of 1915, and the version was succeeded by the JN-3, which introduced several design modifications to target its deficiencies.
The definitive, dual (student and pilot) seat JN-4, with an almost 40-foot wingspan; a docile, 60-mph cruise speed; and 1,920-pound gross weight, proved ideal as a World War I trainer for the US Army Air Service and the Canadian Royal Flying Corps.
Its speed and stability made it an optimum, post-war, stunt-flying and barnstorming aircraft, of which 6,813 had ultimately been built.
Although it had been standardly powered by the Curtiss OX-5 engine, the Old Rhinebeck example, an original JN-4H, was one of only three Hispano Suiza-powered examples still flying.
According to Schoelzel, the type “literally introduced aviation to America and Canada. It’s just a sweetheart to fly. It was the first to carry the mail. Almost 7,000 were built.”
Bill Gordon, Old Rhinebeck’s Chief Pilot and Head of Restoration and Maintenance, shared some of the aircraft’s characteristics amassed after a half-decade of experience with it. “It’s an original, 1917 JN-4H with an original engine,” he stated. “It makes an excellent trainer, but needs a lot of rudder.”
Asked about its performance, he contemplated, “It’s slow. It has a huge wing and its bracing wires create drag. Its stall speed is probably 35 mph, (although it) flies at up to 70 to 75. If the wires whistle, you’re going too fast.”
“It has four ailerons,” he continued, “because it’s a Navy Jenny. And it’s more reliable because it’s an Hisso Jenny, with a lot more power than (that with) the OX-5 engine.”
“It’s a showcase piece,” he concluded. “One of our most valuable airplanes. In five years, I’ve only checked out one other pilot on it. It’s so valuable that I’ve never gotten out of the pattern and always stay within gliding distance. But it’s an honor to fly and my most favorite airplane.”
The Curtiss Fledgling, belonging to the Lindbergh era and currently consisting of little more than its green, metal, skeletal-appearing frame, “is under long-term restoration,” according to Schoelzel.
The result of the Navy’s 1927 requirements for a primary trainer, the 2,832-pound Fledgling, selected after consideration of 15 competing designs, featured a two-bay, equal-span, but staggered, 39.2-foot biplane connected by N-struts; tandem seating for a student and instructor; a tailwheel; and a single, 220-hp Wright R-790-8 engine. Internally designed “Model 48,” it was known as the “N2C” in Navy guise.
The Model 51, intended for the civilian market, was powered by a Challenger engine, and the Curtiss Flying Service operated 109 of the type on its air taxi routes.
About 160 of both variants were built.
Old Rhinebeck’s example, an original constructed in 1929, was acquired by Cole Palen in 1975 after he had watched it perform during the annual Sun and Fun Air Show in Florida. It subsequently flew in its own weekend air shows and served as a bomber and camera platform for a number of years, and is billed as a “civilized version of the Navy N2C-1 trainer. It made a good gunnery and instrument trainer, (and was) used in Curtiss flight schools.”
The fifth Curtiss design in the Old Rhinebeck collection is the Curtiss-Wright CW-1 Junior, which equally hails from the Lindbergh era.
Built in response to the then-current Aeronca C-2 and American Eagle Eaglet, the light, basic sport aircraft, originally designated “Curtiss-Robertson CR-1 Skeeter,” featured a square fuselage cross-section made of fabric-covered steel tubes; open, tandem seating for two; a parasol wing; a three-cylinder, 45-hp, Szekely SR-3-0 radial engine mounted on top of the wing intersection and driving a dual-bladed, wooden propeller in pusher-configuration; two small, wide, air-filled main wheels; and a tailwheel.
Almost appearing like a powered glider, it was marketed as “built to sell for the price of an automobile in the medium class.”
First flying in the fall of 1930, it adopted its current name when Curtiss-Robertson’s parent company, Curtiss, merged with Wright.
Lighter than a Piper Cub, with a 570-pound empty weight, and selling for $1,490, the low-budget, post-depression aircraft was shipped, disassembled, to any spot in the country and, because of its large wingspan, handled particularly well in the air, attaining maximum, 80-mph speeds. Yet, despite its basic construction, it was not without its deficiencies. “The Szekely engine had a tendency to throw cylinders,” according to Schoelzel. “With its pusher arrangement, the cylinder passed directly through the propeller.” Because of its low height, passengers were also often injured by it.
These flaws, combined with a few accidents, resulted in the type’s discontinuation in 1932 after some 270 had been built.
Amidst the quad-hourly take offs of the New Standard D-25, whose engine reverberated in the dying dusk, the day was capped with the Hudson River Valley Institute’s presentation of a John Gould painting entitled “Albany Flier” to Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome–a day which ensured that the dusk would never truly set on Glenn Hammond Curtiss, whose aeronautical contributions to early aviation were instrumental in its development. Echoing Old Rhinebeck’s very philosophy of “keep the dream alive,” the day’s special program, coupled with the five Curtiss aircraft in its collection, equally ensured that they would “keep his spirit alive.”