The Curtiss Jenny, particularly the JN-4, is one of America’s most famous airplanes.
Jenny was ubiquitous — everybody had a Jenny, along with bailing wire, a five-gallon gas can and the grease gun needed to keep her going.
The Jenny, with all its struts, wires and fittings, was referred to as “a bunch of parts flying in formation.” Given all its foibles, more than 8,000 were built and Jenny had a long, versatile career — it was used to train almost all of our pilots in World War I, flew the first air mail and became synonymous with the barnstorming era.
After the war the surplus aircraft, many still in shipping crates, were sold for civilian use, some for as little as a couple of hundred dollars. The post-war market looked so good that Curtiss bought back more than 1,600 JN-4s and 4,608 OX-5 motors. The vast popularity of the war-surplus Jenny led to its being the second most registered aircraft design in the United States before World War II.
The Jenny had its roots in the Model J and the Model N. By 1912 it became apparent that the pusher designs of Wright and Curtiss were passé and that the future belonged to the “tractor” design with the engine mounted in the nose.
The JN was a combination of the better features of the Model J, which was designed by Englishman B. Douglas Thomas, with those of the similar Model N.
While the JN series was continually refined, development on Jenny’s siblings, the Model N and Model R, progressed. The N series became successful in its own right with the Army and the Navy. A larger, heavier version of the JN series, the Model R series, also was used by the Army and Navy, as well as the air mail service, and provided a number of aviation milestones.
Expansion of the Army Air Service during the war resulted in later versions of the Model N being constructed at the same time as the JN series.
The Army ordered four of the N-8 models, which were similar to the JNs except for a new airfoil and an improved engine, the 90-hp Curtiss OX-2. The most famous N-model was the N-9, designed as a bombing and gunnery trainer for the Army. It had larger wings and a 100-hp Curtiss OXX engine.
A seaplane version, developed for the Navy, became the standard Navy trainer of World War I. With the 100-hp engine, the performance was marginal, so many were converted to use the 150-hp Wright-Martin Hisso engine. This improved version was designated N-9H. These aircraft became an essential part of naval training, with 560 N-9s delivered to the Navy during World War I. Some of them remained in service into the late 1920s.
The development of the Curtiss Model R series came about as a result of the poor showing of the JN-2s and JN-3s operating in New Mexico as part of General Pershing’s punitive expedition to Mexico to hunt down Pancho Villa. The high altitude and poor weather conditions quickly put the planes out of action.
The R series was a larger, more advanced version of the earlier J and N models. With much larger wings and powered by the 150-hp Curtiss V-X engine, it was a greater load carrier with longer range.
The planes were widely used by the Army and Navy for observation, training and as air ambulances. The Navy’s R-6 version was the first American-built aircraft to see service overseas in World War I. They were stationed in the Azores on anti-submarine duty.
Many were converted to use 400-hp Liberty engines, while the Navy carried out airborne torpedo tests in some of them.
The Curtiss Model R and its various configurations set a number of aviation milestones, including altitude records, distance records and service with the U.S. Post Office airmail.
In April 1916, Steve Gordon, a Curtiss pilot and instructor, flew an R-2 with a passenger from Newport News, Va., to Washington, D.C., and returned in four hours and 45 minutes.
That same month, Victor Carlstrom, flying an R-2, set a three-man altitude record of 11,180 feet at Newport News, Va. In November Carlstrom flew from Chicago to New York City in a Model R-7 that was built for the New York Times. The machine had a 200-hp VX-3 engine, a 205-gallon fuel tank, and an extra 12 square feet of wing area.
The intent was to perform the flight non-stop, but a forced landing in Erie, Pa., with the attendant delay, forced Carlstrom to stop in Hammondsport, N.Y., continuing on to New York City the next day. Total flying time was eight and a half hours and established some new American records. The 452 miles from Chicago to Erie was a new non-stop record and the average speed of 134 from Hammondsport to New York was the highest ever attained in a cross-country flight.
The U.S. Post Office Air Mail Service also used the R-4. With the signing of the armistice ending the First World War, 20 of the war surplus Curtiss R-4s were turned over to the post office. Six of these were converted to use 400-hp Liberty engines derated to 360 hp.
The Jenny may be very well known, but her siblings, the Model Ns and Model Rs, made their own contributions to aviation history. When you see a picture of a “Jenny,” look more closely, it may actually be one of her sisters.
Dennis Parks is Curator Emeritus of Seattle’s Museum of Flight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.