Inventor, racer, aviator – intense and relentless competitor. Father of Naval Aviation. These titles and more accrued to one Glenn Hammond Curtiss, born this date in 1878 in Hammondsport, New York. Not satisfied with the sedate life of the pedistrian, he earned money for his first bicycle while working for Eastman Kodak (where his natural inventiveness and engineering skills produced a stencil machine used at th plant and a camera he invented to study photography) and put it to good use as a Western Union delivery boy. In his early twenties he encoutered the first motorcycles and by 1901, had built his own. Barely one year later he was founding the G.H. Curtiss Manuacturing Company for the production of motorcycles of his design. Driven by the “need for speed,” his designs featured a lightweight, air-cooled engine (a main feature of the Hercules motocycle). His first record came in 1903 with a world speed record of 64 mph averaged over a one mile course. By 1907 he had upped that to 136.6 mph on a bike of his design, usnig an 40-hp V-8 also of his desin. By the way, that motorcycle had no brakes (excess weight, you know).
For all his acclaim as a land racer, there remained a new realm to conquer – the air. At the turn of the century, it was clear man was headed, ever haltingly, to heavier-than-air flight. Work by Lilienthal and others with gliders, including a pair of Ohio-based brothers, pointed towards basic configuration, required aerodynamics and control prnciples. A major shortcoming though was power. The engines of the time were heavy, of questionable reliabilty and somewhat anemic in the horsepower department – save for the plants developed by Curtiss. First evidence of the airborne capabilty of the Curtiss-designed engines came in the form of an order from one Thomas Scott Baldwin – a californai-based ballonist, who ordred a two cylinder, 5-hp engine for his ariship, the California Arrow. The Arrow, configured with Curtiss’ engine, is recognized as the first of the dirigibles. It was while touring with Baldwin that Curtiss encoutered Alexander Graham Bell who was interested in developing powered aircraft and convinced Curtiss to both join him in a combined effort and join the Aerial Experiment Association, based on Curtiss’ efforts in designing and producing lightweigt engines. The first product of this partnership was the Curtiss designed “June Bug” which incorporated one of his lightweight V-8′s and added ailerons for roll control – a first (the Wright’s used “wing warping” to control roll and thus, with the aid of a rudder, the ability to change direction. With the fertile mind of an inventor and competitive skills of an athlete (not to mention an exceptional entrepenurial streak) Curtiss rapidly came to dominate all aspects of the early days of aviation. In part, because of his outward, entrepenurial nature, Curtiss came to be designated Aviator #1by the Aero Club of America in 1911, surpassing the more secretive Wright brothers (subsequently named #3 and 4). His list of accomplishments in aviation were long and remarkable and included winning the first international air speed competition in Rheims, France, first licensed aircraft manufacturer, establishd the first flying school, first use of firearms from an aircraft, first radio communication from an aircraft, trained the first female pilot – all in the brief span of 1909-1910.
To those of us who wear the Wings of Gold however, Curtiss is officially the “Father of Naval Avation.” It began with that first, tenuous launch from a temporary platform constructed on the light cruiser, USS Birmingham (CL 2) at anchor in Hampton Roads, VA with Curtiss himself at the controls. Later, with the first Naval Aviator (also trained by Curtiss) at the controls, a Curtiss plane signalled the future of the service with the same day recovery and launch aboard the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania (ACR 4) at anchor in San Francisco Bay on 18 January 1911. His efforts with the Navy continued with training the first Naval Aviator – LT T. Gordon “Spuds” Ellyson, the first aircraft catapult shot with a stern launch off the stern of the USS North Carolina (ACR 12) in Pensacola Bay (LCDR Mustin at the controls), production of the Navy’s first aircraft – the Hydroplane A-1 Triad and in support of the Navy’s WW1 efforts, produced the famous NC flying boat series, from which NC-4 originated and in 1919, became the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic, arriving in Lisbon, Portugal on 28 May 1919. This, by the way, was also in addition to producing the J-series biplane from which the “Jenny” – the first mass produced aircraft for the US military and beloved by barnstormers post-war, derived.
Glenn Curtiss passed away in 1930 of complications from surgery for appendicitis. Before he did, he saw the merger of the company he built with that of Wright Aeronautics to form the Curtiss-Wright company. In 1986, the Navy celebrated 75 years of Naval Aviation and featured prominently on the logo was Curtiss’ A-1 Triad.