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The Intrepid Mr. Curtiss
The fastest man in the air competed with the Wrights for ten years, became rich, and awakened America to the air age.
April 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 3
Now the turbulence hit him, and Curtiss had to call on all his flying skills. The Flyer kicked and bucked in wind currents he compared to a mountain stream plunging through a gorge. At Storm King Mountain he was caught in a sudden downdraft and nearly fell out of the plane before he could regain control. But that was the worst. Soon New York’s skyscrapers were in sight. After a quick landing in upper Manhattan to top off his fuel and oil, he headed on downstream for Governors Island in the harbor. Throngs on roofs and balconies cheered and waved as he buzzed past the city, and ships tooted their whistles. After circling the Statue of Liberty he glided in for a landing on Governors Island. His flying time from Albany was under three hours, an average speed of fifty-two miles an hour.
The flight was front-page news across the nation. “It was a splendid feat, with wonderful courage and skill,” said the Times , “and it seems to make human flying more of a reality than hitherto it has been.” Some papers were carried away, comparing it to Cook’s and Peary’s recent Arctic achievements and predicting that transatlantic flight was just around the corner. Besides pocketing the World ’s ten-thousand-dollar check, Curtiss was awarded the Scientific American Trophy for the third year in a row.
In the afterglow of this latest triumph he organized the Curtiss Exhibition Company, and when in self-defense the Wrights set up a rival company, aerial barnstorming was born. Flying from cow pastures and county fairgrounds and ball diamonds across the nation, a colorful gallery of aviators—and a few “aviatrixes”—put their frail craft through maneuvers billed with perfect accuracy as “deathdefying.” Uncounted Americans got their first glimpse of a flying machine, and uncounted small boys got a new species of hero. But the mortality rate in barnstorming proved terribly high, and at his wife’s urging Curtiss gave up such appearances. In any case he had a new preoccupation—the seaplane.
The idea of a “hydroaeroplane” had been in the back of his mind since the AEA days, when he experimented briefly with turning June Bug into a “water bug.” Now, in the autumn of 1910, his interest coincided with the United States Navy’s first look at aviation. In charge of the looking was Captain Washington Irving Chambers, an innovative, forward-thinking officer. Chambers sought to impress the navy brass by staging the takeoff of an airplane from a warship. Wilbur Wright turned down the idea as too risky, but Curtiss pilot Eugene Ely was willing. On November 14, in Hampton Roads off the Virginia coast, he cranked up the Hudson Flyer and sped down a wooden platform built over the forecastle of the cruiser Birmingham . The Flyer lurched over the bow, clipped the wave tops, and struggled into the air. The date is celebrated as the birth of naval aviation.
Curtiss notified the Secretary of the Navy that he was setting up a “winter experimental station” in California and that to investigate the “adaptability of the aeroplane to Military purposes” he would give free pilot training to any officer the Navy cared to assign. In January of 1911 Lieutenant Theodore Ellyson, late of the submarine service, reported to Curtiss on the West Coast “for instruction in the art of aviation.”
As the experimental station they chose San Diego’s North Island, flat, uninhabited, and accessible only by boat. In this pleasant seclusion Curtiss set about looking into the seaplane question. First, however, he and Chambers and Ely combined for another navy spectacular. A platform was hammered together over the quarterdeck of the cruiser Pennsylvania anchored in San Francisco Harbor, an arrester gear of cables and sandbags was assembled, and on January 18 Ely made history’s first carrier landing. After lunching with the ship’s officers he took off without mishap.
Ely’s flights began a highly productive partnership between Curtiss and the Navy. Chambers extolled Curtiss for achieving “more for the development of naval aviation than any other man in the world … always ready to make experiments and as progressive as the Wrights were conservative.” The seaplane was a prime example. Less than a year before, Frenchman Henri Fahre had managed to get an ungainly float plane airborne, but nothing more came of that. A practical seaplane remained to be invented, and Curtiss proceeded to do it in less than two weeks.
It was tinkering of a high order. There was no scientific study of hydrodynamics, no carefully shaped models towed in testing tanks. Old-fashioned trial and error was the Curtiss way. Lieutenant Ellyson reported that some fifty pontoon designs and modifications were tried before, on January 26, 1911, Curtiss taxied away from the beach, applied full throttle, and soared off the water. As he circled North Island his flight crew ran up and down the beach, throwing their hats into the air. That was only the beginning. Fitting a retractable landing gear resulted in the first amphibian; since it was operable on land, sea, and in the air, Curtiss christened it Triad . The following year, applying what he had learned to hull design, he invented the first flying boat.