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Curtiss JN-4

Curtiss JN-4 'Jenny'

Barnstorming Bipe

If ever an aircraft made its mark on bringing aviation to the masses, it's the Curtiss Jenny, designed by Glenn Curtiss and B. Douglas Thomas. The latter had previously worked for Sopwith, and the JN-4 shared many design features, particularly the wings, with the Sopwith Tabloid. Previous to Sopwith he'd worked for Avro, and later moved on to Thomas Brothers to work on the excellent Thomas-Morse Scout. (The Thomas in this case refers referring to the Thomas Brothers, the company's founders, not to Douglas).

Glenn Curtiss met Thomas when he visited the Sopwith company to learn more about tractor aircraft. However, it's only by coincidence that their partnership began. Douglas was extremely shy, and hadn't dared to speak to the rich, successful American who'd crossed the Atlantic just to pick up a few design tips. It was a few days later, when the famous British weather intervened, that the two were to meet. Curtiss, his business in England concluded, was exploring the shops in Kingston-on-Thames when the skies opened. Taking shelter in a nearby bookshop, he almost collided with a young man who finally found the courage to introduce himself.

Curtiss recognised the genuine ability underlying Thomas's bashfulness and considered how to extend the conversation. Having an unbreakable appointment in Paris, he offered to pay the designer's fare if he'd meet him again in the French Capital. Once there he persuaded Douglas to leave Sopwith and join the Curtiss company to design a new tractor biplane.

Thomas began the project while still in Britain, before moving to Hammondsport to complete the new aeroplane, which was to be christened the Model 'J'.

Alliott Roe's innovative yoke control system had obviously not made it across the Atlantic, as the ailerons of the first machines were controlled by the rear-cockpit occupant leaning to one side or the other, the movement being transferred to the wings via a shoulder harness! It was a heavy beast, with feeble climbing ability and cumbersome handling. The JN-3 was more successful. Unequal span wings were introduced with ailerons only on the upper wings. Crucially, the unwieldy shoulder harness was replaced by a control wheel, with a rudder bar being added for yaw control.

The entry of the USA into WW1 in 1917 prompted a large increase in military orders. Curtiss opened a new factory in Buffalo, with a new location being opened in Toronto to satisfy orders from the Royal Flying Corps for a new trainer. The RFC "Canuck" version was lighter than its American counterpart, and featured ailerons on upper and lower wings.

After the war, large numbers of surplus Jennys were sold off to would-be aviators. One notable buyer was Charles Lindbergh, who learned to solo in his Jenny. Many other pilots were less successful, and the lack of aviation regulations led to an alarming number of casualties as tyros discovered that there was more to this flying business than met the eye.

Wing walker

Economy class, 1920s-style

Of course, many surplus aircraft were bought by experienced combat pilots, who saw an opportunity to boost their meagre war pensions by offering joyrides to air-struck enthusiasts. The Jenny's stable, predictable flying characteristics made it an ideal passenger-carrier, as well as a dependable aerobatic mount. Thus was born the spectacle of barnstorming. Initially, pilots would fly their machine from town to town, offering joyrides to the locals. Several owners converted their Jennys to carry two passengers, arguing that flying should be a shared experience. The more daring passengers would pay extra for aerobatic manoeuvres like loops and stall turns. The pilot-owners would frequently boost interest by performing airborne stunts like flying under bridges or even through barns. Some paid wing walkers to perform near-suicidal acrobatics on the wings or on a trapeze suspended below the fuselage. Some even transferred from one aircraft to another in mid-air, or dropped onto moving cars or speedboats.

The Jenny continued flying into the 30s, and many survive today. Possibly the most evocative of them all is to be seen at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in New York State, where the spirit of those crazy barnstormers is kept alive by almost weekly airshows. Their Jenny, a rare variant, powered by a Hispano Suiza engine, is to be seen flying alongside the collection's spectacular WW1 and between-wars fleet. Should you find yourself in Red Hook, it's a spectacle you can't miss.

JN-4 'Jenny' by numbers
First Flight:January 1915
Capacity:1-2 passengers
Powerplant:1 x Curtiss OX5 engine of 67kW (90hp)
Range:241km (150mi)
Maximum Speed:121km/h (75mph)
Ceiling:1981m (6,500ft)
Length:8.33m (27ft 4in)
Wingspan:13.3m (43ft 8in)
Height:3.01m (9ft 11in)
Weight:630kg (1389lb)


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