The June Bug and the Jenny went on to establish Glen Curtiss as an aviator who understood what the user wanted. When the Scientific American announced a $25,000 prize for the first person who could demonstrate a flight of 1 km or more to the general public and to official observers on a date of his own choosing, there were few who expected anyone other than the Wright brothers to claim it. Indeed, the brothers had flown more than 20 miles in a single flight.
However, it was a racing bike driver, Glenn H Curtiss who first filed his intent to demonstrate such a flight on July 4, 1908.
The Scientific American, (possibly) was of the view that the Wright brothers deserved a go at the prize and (as the story goes) did ask them if they were interested in attempting before the date fixed by Glenn Curtiss. The Wrights declined due to a busy schedule and Curtiss’ date with destiny was fixed.
The airplane Curtiss pulled out of his hanger was the June Bug. It resembled a mousetrap more than a plane but it had flown well in trials and Curtiss was confident that it would not let him down. The morning passed with rain. More than a thousand people – including the public, the official observers and the press gathered at Hammondsport. N.Y.
The June Bug flew. It flew more than the one kilometer required by The Scientific American and Curtiss landed it straight ahead because he had not yet explored its behavior in turns! However, not many know that the airplane had crashed the previous day and repairs went on till late in the night before it could take to the air again.
Shortly after he had pulled off his historic public flight, Glenn Curtiss was attempting to convert the June Bug into a sea plane but fitting pontoons to it. It did not work, but the problem was an underpowered engine and not aerodynamics.
The Jenny – Between the June Bug and the Jenny, Curtiss became a household name. The Jenny was designed to fill an Army requirement for a simple and robust trainer and Curtiss was able to do just that.
The Army was not happy with the conventional pusher designs that were popular then. They tended to get into flat spins due to the rear CG position and bailing out with a running engine was an invitation to becoming mince meat.
The Jenny changed all that. It was an amalgamation of two designs – the model J which was designed for the Army and the model N – built for the Navy. This gave the name JN which later was popularly altered to Jenny. Curtiss built the Jenny in a standard tractor configuration as a biplane. The Jenny was stable, slow and easy to fly – an ideal trainer.
The Curtiss Jenny JN-4 was built in several versions with successive improvements. Some of these were quite major such as changing the relative size of the upper and the lower wings, altering the dihedral of the airplane, putting ailerons on different wings and so on. All told, 6813 aircraft were built and tens of thousands of pilots earned their wings on a Jenny.
After the armistice, the need to train large numbers of pilots reduced and many of these 6813 aircraft were sold to civilians at very low prices. This produced a slew of barnstormers who introduced thousands more to the charm and thrill of flying. Many barnstormers became famous and traveling air circuses became show stoppers in towns.
While barnstorming gave a never before impetus to aviation in America, there were as a spate of accidents due to poor maintenance, unsafe maneuvers, poorly qualified pilots and financial pressures. This ultimately led to regulation and legislation to control flying that eventually caused the demise of barnstorming itself. At the same time the huge stock of surplus aircraft provided a disincentive to produce new aircraft.
The Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” therefore, not only helped churn out a generation and more of pilots, its wide availability and surplus stock was instrumental in bringing about regulation and method to what had earlier been a madness. Even today, the barnstorming age is synonymous with the characteristic engine sound of the Jenny.
Glen Curtiss, with the June Bug and the Jenny achieved what the Wright brothers could not. He made flying available to tens of thousands of pilots the world over.
Until next time keep your wings straight and level Hersch!
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