There's a place in every flyer's
heart for the Curtiss JN–4 "Jenny"
- by Lane Wallace
It was one of those moments that burns itself indelibly into memory; a snapshot image that I will carry with me no matter how many days and years fill the spaces in between. I was flying my old 1946 Cessna 120 up to the big annual Experimental Aircraft Association fly-in at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It was early on a hazy summer morning, and I'd climbed above a broken cloud deck that hovered 1,500 feet above the Illinois farmland. The light from the sun, still low in the sky, gave the clouds beneath me an almost mystical silver tint, shrouding the modern world behind a veil of silver-white mist. For a moment, it seemed as if it could be any summer morning of any year, because time itself seemed to blur in this magical world between mist and sky. And in that moment, I saw it.
It rose slowly through the broken wisps of cloud, about a half mile to the east. First came wire braces above a top wing. Then a fabric-covered wing, fuselage, lower wing and lower wing skids made their way clear of the clouds. It was a Jenny: graceful, frail, and edged in sunlit silver against the morning mist. And for just a moment, I wondered if perhaps I was the visitor out of time; if my Cessna had somehow transported me back to a parallel morning in 1920, when Model T Fords ruled the ground and the Curtiss JN–4D "Jenny" ruled the skies.
The Jenny was headed in the same direction I was and had risen through the clouds about even with my position. So for a few magical moments and minutes in time, we flew together—airplanes from two different eras, flying together in a timeless sky over a world far different from the one either plane would have seen when it was first flown. But even my slow, 100-mph Cessna flew much faster than the 60-mph Jenny. So the Jenny slowly retreated into the sky behind me, finally sliding out of sight.
"At the time, the Jenny represented a radically new approach to aircraft design."
The encounter remains etched so clearly in my mind because a Jenny sighting is a very rare thing anywhere these days, let alone on a misty summer morning somewhere out of time. The Curtiss JN–4 was the first airplane America built in any kind of quantity—more than 10,000 of them were built between 1915 and 1920. But it was also the first airplane American pilots crashed in quantity, and the ravages of time have taken their toll on the survivors.
A few pilots have restored old Jenny carcasses to flying condition, but it takes a very special and dedicated person to pour that much love and effort into bringing a Jenny back to life. Because even at its factory new or restored best, the JN–4 was a marginal airplane with an unreliable engine, cantankerous flying qualities, and unimpressive performance. So why do so many people gaze fondly at the few remaining examples of this rare and ancient bird? Because the Curtiss JN–4 was the plane that introduced the American public to flight. The Wright Flyer may have been the first airplane, but few examples were ever built, which meant that few people ever saw the Wright's plane fly.
The Jenny, on the other hand, trained almost 9,000 American pilots during World War I alone—which accounted for approximately 95 percent of the pilots in America in 1919. When the war ended, the Army was stuck with thousands of unneeded JN–4 trainers, so they sold them as surplus for as little as $100. The surplus planes and pilots soon found each other, and the era of the traveling barnstormer was born. Flying from town to town across the country in their tattered Jennies, scraping out a living by performing stunts and hopping rides, barnstormers gave millions of Americans their first taste of flight. Indeed, the Jenny was often the first airplane that their audiences had ever seen.
The JN–4 was actually designed before the outbreak of WWI, but the war made her fame and success possible by providing a reason and the money to build the trainer in such large quantities. In 1914, the U.S. Army board banned "pusher" plane designs like the Wright Flyer and the original Curtiss Pusher, which had the motor and propeller mounted at the back of the plane, because the configuration posed a significant danger to pilots in the event of a crash. So Glenn Curtiss, needing a new design, hooked up with a British engineer named B. Douglas Thomas, who was working at the Sopwith Aviation Company (makers of the Sopwith Camel and Pup).
Curtiss asked Thomas to design a "tractor" airplane, with the engine and propeller in the front, which he designated the Curtiss "Model J." Curtiss, meanwhile, had been working on his own design, which he called the "Model N." In 1915, Curtiss merged the two designs into the "JN," marking the start of the Curtiss JN, or "Jenny" series of airplanes. Demand for the Jennies then increased dramatically when the U.S. entered the war in the spring of 1917. Between May 1917 and November 1918, almost 8,000 Jennies were produced by Curtiss and six other firms.
The basic concepts that governed the Jenny's design—staggered biplane wings, engine and propeller in the front, two main landing gear up front and a tail skid in the back beneath a vertical rudder and horizontal stabilizer—seem normal to us today, because almost all the biplanes built after the Jenny followed the same formula. But at the time, the Jenny represented a radically new approach to aircraft design.
"For all its challenges, the Jenny had two
in the eyes of its post-war pilots: It was available, and it was cheap."
The JN–4 was still a primitive design, however, a fact that's clearly reflected in its accident rate. One Jenny historian estimated that the Jenny had a statistically higher fatality rate than smallpox in the years during and following WWI. There were many reasons for this sobering death rate among Jenny pilots, but one of the big culprits was the infamous OX-5 engine that powered most of the Jennies. The OX-5 was an eight-cylinder, water-cooled engine that produced a timid 90 horsepower. But it was a cantankerous engine that tended to overheat easily and would often lose power in one or more cylinders if it got wet. It also had a notoriously weak camshaft, which was so prone to failure that Jenny pilots used to comment that forced landing skills were far more important in the Jenny than flying skills. One small contingent of Army JN–4 pilots deployed in 1916 to fight off the raids of Pancho Villa along the Mexican border estimated that they walked back from forced landings and crashes as many miles as they ever flew.
The Jenny also had marginal flying characteristics, even when the engine kept running. It barely produced enough power and lift to keep it in the air flying straight and level, so takeoff climbs were chancy affairs, especially if the plane was carrying any kind of load. And to turn without stalling or spinning required a bit of finesse on the pilot's part—making all the aerobatics the barnstormers performed with the Jenny even more amazing.
In Charles Lindbergh's' autobiography We, he describes trying to take off in a Jenny with a passenger and a sandbag-weighted parachute he was trying to test.
"Even with this load we cleared the nearest obstacle by a safe margin and finally attained an altitude of about 200 feet. Then we were caught by a descending current of air which carried the plane down to within 10 feet of the ground, and try as I would I could not get any higher. A wooded hill was directly in front, and to avoid striking the trees I turned downwind. A railroad trestle was then in front of us and we stalled over it by inches. For five minutes we dodged hills, trees, and houses. I signaled Bud to cut the sandbag, but when he started to climb out of the cockpit to reach it, the added resistance brought the plane down still lower. Then in front of us appeared a row of trees, much higher than the rest, which I knew it would not be possible to get over. We were then passing over a grain field and I gut the gun and landed downwind."
Glenn Curtiss merged designs of the Model J (above) and the
Model N to create the Curtiss JN "Jenny."
But for all its challenges, the Jenny had two unassailable strengths in the eyes of its post-war pilots: It was available, and it was cheap. If takeoffs in the plane were dicey, landings were unscheduled, and the flying was a nonstop adventure, well, that was okay. The returning Army pilots had had a taste of an intoxicating drug called flight. And they were prepared to take on a fair amount of uncertainty and discomfort in order to keep that drug in their veins.
That passion was an essential element for a Jenny pilot to possess, because barnstorming or traveling in a Jenny generally involved quite a bit of uncertainty and discomfort. In the early 1920s, there were no airports, maintenance facilities, or navigation aids. Jenny pilots navigated by compass, road map, and railroads. These methods worked reasonably well; in good weather, a pilot could end up in the right general vicinity of where he wanted to be. But it wasn't uncommon for a pilot to find he had flown 150 miles north instead of west in a day, and had landed in Tennessee instead of Alabama. If the weather was bad, these problems only got worse. And that's if the Jenny's OX-5 engine actually kept running.
"The pilots who learned to fly in the Curtiss Jenny
the trailblazers and leaders who pioneered
air mail service, transcontinental airline flying,
and the aviation industry we know today."
On May 10,1920, two barnstorming pilots named Tex Marshall and Frank Palmer set out from Sea Breeze, Florida in two Curtiss Jennies, bound for Findlay, Ohio. The distance between those two points, as the crow flies, measures 768 miles. Even at the Jenny's sedate 60 miles an hour, the trip should have taken no more than 14 flight hours. But it was June 12 before the pilots finally straggled into Findlay. The saga of their trip involved everything from patching planes with pieces from plywood crates and sleeping in haystacks to enticing an entire town to clear a runway in a boulder-strewn corner of pasture so that they could earn enough money by hopping rides there to continue their journey. They encountered—and were fortunate enough to survive—some horrible weather conditions that few pilots today would be foolish enough fly through. At one point, Marshall noted that the technique of following railroad lines was decidedly more challenging when flying through mountainous terrain in bad weather, because the railroad lines had a bad habit of disappearing suddenly into mountain tunnels, leaving the pilots facing some very inhospitable-looking rock cliffs.
And yet, the truly remarkable thing about Marshall and Palmer's trip was that, at the time, it wasn't remarkable. It was simply how flying was. Barnstormers didn't live a comfortable life. They also didn't tend to live long ones, especially as airplanes became less of a novelty across America.
At first, a barnstormer could generate interest and income simply by showing up and offering rides. Once people had experienced a flight, however, the ante had to be raised to get their attention and dollars. The need to entertain led to some of more ludicrous—and dangerous—stunts that pilots pulled with Jennies and other aircraft during the barnstorming era. Wingwalkers first stood on the wings, then hung from the wings while the pilots did aerobatic maneuvers, then jumped from plane to plane, car to plane, boat to plane, and even played archery and tennis on top of Curtiss JN–4s in a never-ending effort to attract crowds. All of this in a plane whose performance was marginal, at best, although Jennies at least had a good assortment of braces, wires, skids and parts with which wingwalkers could steady themselves.
The Curtiss Jenny starred in numerous antics during the barnstorming years.
It was a crazy time—a free-for-all era of experimentation that generally only comes once in the history of any new technology. But as irresponsible as some of the barnstormers may have seemed, they actually played a critical role in the advancement of aviation. The barnstorming Jenny pilots were the Johnny Appleseeds of flying—sowing the seeds of a more lasting flying community and industry across the country as they went. The little hayfield in Findlay, Ohio, where the barnstorming pilots Marshall and Palmer hopped rides in the summer of 1920 had become an established airport by the next spring. The term "Fixed Base Operator" (or FBO) that's used to denote airport fuel and maintenance facilities today evolved from barnstormers who finally settled down in friendly towns and began offering flying services from a single, or fixed, base of operations. And the pilots who learned to fly in the Curtiss Jenny became the trailblazers and leaders who pioneered airmail service, transcontinental airline flying, and the aviation industry we know today.
But why would anyone today go to the trouble of restoring one of these cantankerous airplanes and take on the challenge of flying it, when such better planes are available? Perhaps for the same reason people choose to hike to the top of Mount Washington instead of taking the tram or driving up the road. Or for the same reason some people choose to sail a hand-built wooden skiff across an ocean instead of driving a well-equipped fiberglass powerboat. Which is to say, for the pure, unfiltered, unsheltered experience of it. Charles Lindbergh once wrote that flying appealed to him because it offered the perfect combination of science, romance, and adventure. And few planes epitomize that combination as clearly and purely as a classic old JN–4 Jenny.
A new sight in its day, the Curtiss Jenny introduced many people to flight.
To fly a Jenny is to surrender all the comforts and conveniences of the modern age in exchange for a more visceral experience. Jenny pilots can't muscle their way through the air, overcoming nature with horsepower and technology. They have to listen to the sound of the flying wires; feel and adjust to any slight shudder in the wings; coax a negotiated truce between water temperature and climb angle. Flying a Jenny is a carefully choreographed dance among human, nature, and machine, and keeping in step requires close attention and a bit of grace and finesse. Nobody would ever say it was easy. But we value most those things we've had to work to attain. And a beautiful Jenny flight is one of the most spectacular experiences any pilot can have.
"Flying a Jenny is a carefully choreographed dance among human, nature, and machine ..."
A Jenny didn't get anywhere quickly, and many of them never got there at all. But the few that still fly are a window to an era when flight truly was an exploration of the unknown. The Jenny's wood-and-leather cockpit is a living memory of a simpler time, when life wasn't governed by commute times and fast-food meals; when farmers and townspeople gathered together to help stranded pilots they didn't even know. So perhaps the real payoff for taking on the challenge and discomfort of flying a Jenny is the chance to reach through that window and experience a world that has long since passed into the pages of history.
Few people have the privilege of knowing what a time gone by might have felt like. But Jenny pilots are among those privileged few. Coaxing a Jenny over the fields of the Midwest on a misty summer morning, the harried details of modern life slip away. And what remains are gifts once known only to a few lucky and courageous adventurers: the taste of the wind, the song of the flying wires, and the magical feeling of being one with a plane and the sky.