While the Wright brothers were supplying versions of their Flyer to the U.S. Army, on February 25, 1911, Glenn Curtiss test-flew a version of his Model D tailored for the Navy. Using a 75-hp Curtiss O engine driving a pusher propeller and yoke-activated ailerons, the Curtiss A-1 sat two crewmen side-by-side atop a central float, with two outrigger floats and retractable-wheel beaching gear. The world’s first amphibian airplane built for air, water and stowage on land, it was called the Triad. On July 1, 1911, Lieutenant Theodore G. “Spuds” Ellyson soloed in it to become Naval Aviator No. 1.
Besides the 14 that Curtiss built for the U.S., A-1s were also used by the German, British, Russian and Japanese navies. None are known to survive, but at least four reproductions have been built. One is at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, N.Y.; one is in the National Museum of Naval Aviation at Pensacola, Fla.; and another is on display at the San Diego Air and Space Museum in California. The latest, the product of 11 years of research and construction, was unveiled at the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum in southern Maryland in 2011.
Unlike its predecessors, the museum’s Triad was built with no intention of being flown. “It’s a non-flying replica, so we could make it as close to the original as we could,” says Bernie Wunder, who served as “facilitator, coordinator and go-fer” on the project. Wunder credits Thomas Weiss, who works at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, as the “real authority who took and saw it through to completion.” Members of EAA Chapter 478 in Lexington Park, Md., pitched in to fabricate various components. Among the many authentic touches were turnbuckles for the bracing cables bent into shape using tools for tightening motorcycle spokes, and longerons from the same source where Curtiss obtained his bamboo. The principal difference from the original A-1 lies in the 90-hp OXX engine borrowed from Pensacola, since no Curtiss O could be found.
The museum’s “crown jewel,” as Wunder calls it, was the subject of a “Meet the Airplane!” day on February 8. Members of the build team described the process and answered questions on what Wunder calls “perhaps the world’s most accurate replica of the Curtiss A-1 Triad, the U.S. Navy’s first aircraft.”