Glenn H. Curtiss Museum’s flying boat undergoes modifications before a second flight attempt.
Aviation’s early pioneers were no strangers to disappointment in their quest to conquer the air, and neither are aircraft restorers. A case in point is last summer’s attempt to get a reproduction of the 1914 Curtiss Lake. During the trials, a team from the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum at Hammondsport was unable to coax the aircraft’s pair of cantankerous OX-5 engines to run at full rpm at the same time.
Art Wilder, the museum’s director of restoration, said after the America flying boat into the air at New York’s Keuka September 15 trial, “It would have been nice to have a picture with air underneath America, but we are not discouraged.” He explained that following several unsuccessful attempts to get the big flying boat’s engines to run satisfactorily, the team decided it would be best to cancel further flight attempts for the time being. The aircraft was partially disassembled and returned to the museum, where this winter a series of modifications are being made to the airframe and the engines are being swapped out.
Jim Poel, a veteran flying boat pilot and commercial airline captain, pointed out that the museum had been forced by a production delay to substitute a combination of 90-hp OX-5 engines for two of the more powerful 100-hp OXX-6s that had originally been used by Glenn Curtiss on America. He noted that the replacements had left the craft 20 hp short of the power needed to get the more than 3,000-pound aircraft into the air.
Creation of the reproduction flying boat began in 2002, when Joseph Meade, a major museum supporter and chairman of the board for Mercury Aircraft Corporation of Hammondsport, met with Wilder to discuss upcoming projects. At that time, the restoration facility had recently built and flown an exact reproduction of a Curtiss Triad A-1, the U.S. Navy’s first amphibian aircraft, which first took to the air in February 1911. The Curtiss A-1 was considered groundbreaking in that it could land and take off from either the water or land, utilizing a wheeled undercarriage.
Wilder told Meade that the restoration facility was ready for another project and suggested that a reproduction of America—the world’s first twin-engine flying boat—might be a good option. In 1914 the Curtiss plant in Hammondsport built and flew the first of what would eventually be 20 similar models of that aircraft. Meade agreed that building America was appropriate, since it was the last significant aircraft constructed by the Hammondsport facility before the company moved to Buffalo.
Given the scope of the undertaking, it took almost two years of planning and preparations before construction could begin. Volunteers and staff members began by gathering artifacts that were stored at the museum, including a three-view drawing that had been preserved in archives, along with photographs and records that would be crucial to the project. The only blueprints preserved from the original 1914 America were for the upper center wing section and the upper outer wing. (Five sections comprise the upper wing, while two sections make up the lower wing.) The lack of blueprints made the three-view drawings done by Curtiss’ chief designer, B.D. Thomas, extremely important during the construction process, as were photographs taken while the original aircraft was being built. The team used those photos to “scale” portions of the airframe as well as the hull.
The original America was built by Curtiss and his employees in a little more than three months. The work was done in collaboration with John Porte, a retired British Royal Navy officer, who planned to use the flying boat to attempt the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean and garner a cash prize offered by the London Daily Mail. But before the flight could be attempted, Porte was recalled to military service at the outset of World War I.
Porte’s association with Curtiss eventually resulted in the Royal Navy’s purchasing several America-type aircraft for use in antisubmarine patrol work. Porte made several hull modifications to the Curtiss aircraft, after which the airframes were designated as H-4s. Further British improvements to the basic design resulted in the Felixstowe F.2.
Actual construction of the reproduction America began in 2004. In an attempt to create a reproduction as close to the original as possible, the museum selected ash for the framing and incorporated Sitka spruce in the hull planking. To form the hull’s framing skeleton, individually cut sections of ash were steamed, fitted, glued and fastened into place with copper-headed rivets. Spruce was chosen for the hull planking because of its high strength.
Since America’s wing was a “constant chord,” the team created a template to drive a router that cut each rib to exactly the same size. The dimensions of the ribs were based on interpretation of the archival photos and three-view drawings, since only partial sections of the original blueprints existed. Pine was used for the 72-foot upper wing and 42-foot lower wing ribs, with mahogany strips fitted to the areas where extra strength was needed between the lightening holes.
With the framing complete, the wings, fuselage and tail sections were covered with lightweight synthetic Poly-Fiber donated by the manufacturer, Consolidated Aircraft Coatings. (Wilder noted that the original aircraft was covered with silk, which would have been prohibitively expensive for the reproduction.) The fabric was attached to the flying surfaces utilizing a hand stitching technique known as “rib lacing,” a labor-intensive process in which it takes about two hours to attach the fabric to each rib.
The plane’s contrarotating propellers have also been constructed from scratch, built from mahogany by a West Coast specialist. But its engines date from the period. “The OXX-6 engines that were to be used aren’t the original engines that were on America,” said Wilder. “But they are 1914 model Curtiss OXX-6s.”
The engines came from different sources: two from a donor in an unspecified location and another one from an Ohio owner. All of them needed rebuilding. The owner with two engines donated one to the museum in exchange for the rebuilding of both. The Ohio owner, who also owned a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny,” traded his OXX-6 to Hammondsport for cash in addition to restoration work on his Jenny by the museum. “These engines are very expensive and difficult to find,” Wilder said.“We are grateful to those who made us the generous gift and trade arrangement.”
While the reproduction America did not actually make it into the air in 2007, Jim Poel and his right-seat partner, Lee Sackett, showed off the big flying boat by taxiing along the lakeshore, giving the estimated 3,000 to 4,000 spectators who attended the museum’s annual Seaplane Homecoming a real thrill.
“I think we provided a show for the people of Hammondsport that had not been seen in over 90 years,” Poel said. “And I know the running of those OX engines was a sound that could only be remembered by a few.” The whole team is gearing up for another flight attempt later this year at Keuka Lake.
Originally published in the March 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.