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World War creates an opportunity

Glenn Curtiss had developed some ideas for early fighter planes. He realized he needed help, so he recruited B. Douglas Thomas, who had worked for both Avro and Sopwith in England.  As early as 1914, several designs were created and flown. The first was the Curtiss Model J, when combined with features from a later Model N, became the JN or "Jenny". The aircraft developed a total of six model variations, the JN-1 through JN-6.  Early versions of the Curtiss biplane served the U.S. Army before America's entry into World War I, flying in Mexico on the trail of Pancho Villa in 1916.

The pressures of World War I prompted not only the Army but also the Navy, Royal Flying Corps, and Royal Naval Air Services to buy the aircraft. The most famous model, the American JN-4, appeared in 1916, powered by the 90 horsepower Curtiss OX-5 water cooled V8 engine.  By 1918, the larger 150-horsepower Hispano-Suiza engine was installed, considerably improving the performance of this classic training plane.

Unable to keep up with the popular demand for manufacturing Jenny’s on their own, the Curtiss team contracted with six additional manufacturers to produce versions of the plane.  A total of 8,168 Jenny’s were delivered, including 1,260 which were built in Canada.  Jennies were used to train 95 percent of the American airmen who learned to fly. Great Britain, France, Spain and Australia received 1,930 of the Curtiss aircraft. The Curtiss JN-4 remained in U.S. military service until 1927.
The Jenny is one of America's most famous airplanes.

Since early man looked to the heavens and watched birds fly, he’s been captivated by the possibilities.  As the 20th century dawned, the dream of powered flight became a reality. And with that reality, the airplane was born.  It would carry passengers to distant locations in an efficient manner that defied previous limitations.  And the military learned quickly that the ‘Knights of the Air’ would provide a distinct advantage to their military strategies.  To accomplish this, they needed just the right type of aircraft to train their pilots.  The Curtiss Jenny fulfilled that need.

The competition among early airplane manufacturers to deliver training airplanes to the Army was tough and included the world famous Wright brothers.  The impetus for the design of the Curtiss JN-4, began with an Army requirement for a tractor-type (engine and propeller in front) aircraft. The Army's reasoning was simple: in a crash, the rear-engine pusher engines moved forward, crushing and killing pilots at an alarming rate.  

History of the Jenny

Glenn Curtiss, circa 1909

The Future Looks Bright:Barnstorming!

When the war ended, hundreds of Army-trained pilots returned home, determined to continue flying as civilians. But there were few commercially-built planes available, and none available at a price that most of the returning airmen could afford.  None… except the Jenny!  Thousands of them were crammed into government warehouses and sitting on flying fields. There were also thousands of extra OX-5 engines and spare parts. In 1919, these were declared surplus and offered for sale to private individuals. Thus the golden Age of American Aviation began. The era known as “Barnstorming” took flight.  The Curtiss Jenny was used to sell many Americans "their first airplane ride," while others were used in wild flying stunts. Although the whole business was rather haphazard, the barnstormers performed an important function.  They kept aviation in the public eye during the lean years following the war and in general, introduced the whole country to private and commercial flying.

Hollywood Years

It was only a matter of time before the spectacular stunts of the Flying Circus’s that were roaming rural America would be captured on film.  All across the country enthralled audiences sat in stunned silence as they watched Ormer Locklear hang upside down from the wing tips of a Jenny.  Lines formed at local cinemas to see daring young aerialist Gladys Ingle climbing from one Jenny wing to another, walk across the wing carrying a spare wheel, drop down to the landing gear and replace a missing wheel so the Jenny could land.  Stunt groups like ’13 Black Cats’ and the ‘Flying Aces’ gained legendary notoriety, while being filmed by daring cameramen risking their lives to quench America’s thirst for all things aerial!  
 The Dawn of Commercial Aviation

During the 1920s, the Jenny was most people’s first contact with airplanes or flying, and it got thousands of them safely into the air and down again.  Moreover, it was this type of flying and these pilots who created the need for more airports with better runways, plus rotating beacons for night navigation.  Less intentionally, they also pointed up the need for better controls and regulations to make flying safer and more dependable.

From the ranks of the early Jenny pilots came the aviators who founded commercial aviation.  Charles Lindbergh’s first aircraft was a Jenny.  Amelia Earhart learned to fly in a Jenny. Many built themselves permanent hangars and offered charter service and flying instruction. Many others competed for government airmail contracts and went on to establish the first regularly scheduled air carrier routes – the same routes which were later flown by passenger airlines.  Behind this chain of developments was the Jenny, which also pioneered airmail services prior to 1920.

One airplane fulfilled the needs of a growing nation from the War World I training years to the first regular carrier of the U. S. Air Mail to the glamorous Barnstorming era.  And today, the Jenny still has a deep fascination for Americans nearly 100 years after it lifted into the sky for the first time. Big, clumsy, underpowered, the Curtiss JN-4 is truly a classic airplane, for it gave wings to early aviation in a way that no other aircraft could have done. As of now, of the eight thousand plus Jenny’s manufactured, only seven are currently flying in the US.