One thing above all else catches the eye at Hammondsport’s Curtiss Museum: wings. They may be big, but they’re also fragile – fabric stretched over wooden frameworks and braced with wire. Glenn Curtiss bet his life on those wings, a hundred years ago, and won.
The Father of American Aviation
Curtiss was already a famed motorcycle racer and manufacturer before he took up airplanes. Indeed, one reason he turned to the skies seems to have been that he’d done everything a man could do on two-wheelers – including roaring down Ormond Beach at 136 miles per hour, on the world’s first V-8 motorcycle, in 1907.
Teaming up with Alexander Graham Bell and others to create flying machines, Curtiss quickly leapt to the forefront of the fledgling industry. Working out innovations still found on today’s aircraft (up to and including the Space Shuttle), he took the speed prize at the world’s first international air meet (in France) in 1909. By 1911 he was creating the first practical seaplanes, and he became a multimillionaire in World War I, capturing perhaps three-fourths of America’s aviation business.
A Visit to the Museum
A few steps into the Curtiss Museum takes you back to the dawn of the 20th century. Hundred-year-old Curtiss motorcycles, some of the oldest such machines in the world, strain to get out once again and tackle the hills around Hammondsport. The Curtiss Jenny (pictured on page 28), in army training colors from the Great War, waits patiently for a student to creep into the front cockpit. The postwar Curtiss Seagull flying boat (owned by Evengeline Dahlinger) and Curtiss Oriole (like the one owned by Nellie Cox) celebrate America’s pioneer women pilots. In fact, Rochester’s Blanche Stuart Scott became America’s very first woman pilot, at Hammondsport, in 1910. Her flying hood and gauntlets are proudly showcased in the women aviators’ gallery.
A Hub of Activity
Hammondsport before World War I was an “airplane laboratory,” where villagers rubbed shoulders with Alexander Graham Bell, dirigibles circled overhead, and young people casually discussed the experimental airfoils being tested with seaplanes on the lake. Most of the action passed away after the war, when Curtiss built giant new factories in Buffalo, but it was still a living memory when former Curtiss machinist Otto Kohl opened the museum in 1961.
Otto’s cramped collection is a memory itself now, as the museum spreads its wings in a 56,000-square-foot facility on the edge of the village. But visitors still get “up close and personal” with airplanes of the same types as those flown by such aviation greats as Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Bessie Coleman. In fact, individual aircraft in the museum were personally flown by such pioneer aviation heroes as Glenn Curtiss, Jack Vilas, “Windy” Smith and Harvey Mummert.
While about half the aircraft in the collection are originals, museum volunteers also make painstaking reproductions of early Curtiss aircraft – and take them into the air. Flights of the “June Bug” (pictured on page 28) in 1976, Model E flying boat (1999) and Curtiss Junior (2000) are still remembered with excitement. In September the museum flew a reproduction 1911 Curtiss float plane that became “A-1,” the very first U.S. naval aircraft.
After the first world war, Curtiss himself was less involved with aviation, but his company (which is still active today) remained the biggest name in the field. One of their biggest successes was the 1928 Curtiss Robin, a good-handling, easy-maintenance, closed-cabin monoplane that proved its worth spectacularly in 1938. Douglas Corrigan “accidentally” flew his Robin solo from New York to Ireland, cheerfully insisting that he’d been headed for California when he got lost in heavy clouds. Since aviation officials had repeatedly rejected his transatlantic flight plan, more than a few people were skeptical, but “Wrong-Way” Corrigan became an instant international folk hero. The museum’s Robin is the same model as Corrigan’s.
Helping the War Effort
In World War II, of course, the Curtiss-Wright Corporation was a big builder of Allied equipment. Mounted outside is a C-46 Curtiss “Commando,” one of the huge twin-engined cargo planes that flew “over the Hump” of the Himalayas to keep China in the war; the U.S. military was still flying Commandos in Vietnam. The “Flying Tigers” of World War II fame flew Curtiss P-40 Warhawks in China, working on gravel and under camouflage netting, just like the reproduction P-40 on exhibit.
Since Curtiss was very much a man of his village, the museum also tries to recreate a slice of daily life “Over Here” in World War I, besides celebrating the winemaking history of Keuka Lake with its own gallery. An even more lavish gallery shows off some 400 treasures that Mrs. Curtiss gathered for their 1920s mansion in Miami Springs, built not long before Glenn’s untimely death at age 52.
Curtiss Returns to Road Travel
Just a few steps away from the Florida gallery, the Curtiss “Aerocar” demonstrates Glenn’s last manufacturing venture – luxurious streamlined art-deco travel trailers. At the unexpected end of his life, Glenn was enthusiastically back to road travel, assiduously reducing weight and reducing drag in his endless quest for speed. Glenn, who started out in bikes, loved just about every type of vehicle the 20th century had, and he always found a way to make them faster.
by Kirk House
Kirk House, who lives in Bath, is a former director of the Curtiss Museum. He has published books on Glenn Curtiss, pioneer women aviators, Bath and Corning. When he’s not writing, you can often find him on the Finger Lakes Trail.
Tom Watson holds a private pilot’s license. Rob Howard is an avid cyclist. They both live in Skaneateles.