Permanent Exhibit

The Curtiss America

A 72-foot wingspan reproduction of the 1914 Curtiss flying boat America was completed by the museum’s Restoration Shop crew in early September 2007.

Escorted by county sheriff personnel, the plane was transported by trailer to the boat launch at Hammondsport’s Depot Park.

There the America was reassembled, launched and towed several hundred feet down the shoreline to a special site where it would receive final preparation for flight.

The museum greatly appreciates the generous help received from Mercury Aircraft – for personnel, use of trucks and the construction of this set-up area.

The first taxi tests, done on September 8, pointed out the need for additional adjustments. Balance issues were addressed by redistributing weight here and there and additional taxi tests Curtiss America 2007were then done with slightly better results. One major complication that the America project faced was that the two 100 hp special OXX6 engines sent out for major overhaul had not been finished. The crew was then obligsed to pull two standard 90 hp OX5 engines from the museum collection and ready them for use on the America. These engines proved to be not powerful enough for a successful flight.

On September 15, to the delight of many hundreds of spectators, the America was again brought around to the Depot Park area for its christening ceremony. Strikingly beautiful with its crimson paint and impressive size, it was thrilling just to see in on the water. After the ceremony, pilots Jim Poel and Lee Sackett treated those assembled to an extensive water taxiing demonstration back and forth across the head of the lake, with ample opportunity for photos.

Echoing Glenn Curtiss’s spirit of invention, experimentation and innovation, the Restoration Shop crew will focus on improvements to the America during the next year with hope that it will fly in September 2008.

Flying the America was a completely unique experience. Since we were both involved with the design and construction stages, we did have some insight into its expected flight characteristics. The final weight of the aircraft, including the two new OXX-6 engines, crew, fuel and oil, was 4100 lbs. With its 72-ft. upper and 46-ft. lower wing spans, sporting a 7-ft. chord, the America has approximately the same wing area to weight ratio as the Piper J-3 Cub.

Unlike the 1911 A-1 and many other Curtiss aircraft which utilized the “shoulder yoke” flight control system, our America reproduction has conventional flight controls. This means that turning the control wheel operates the ailerons for roll control (wing tips up and down) and pushing and pulling on the wheel operates the elevators for pitch control (nose up and down). Pushing either side of the foot-operated rudder bar operates the rudder for yaw control (push with the right foot equals nose right, push with the left foot equals nose left). Conventional flight controls were just coming into use in 1914.

The flight controls, in a word, are HUGE. The ailerons, for instance, are 17-ft. long with the rudder and elevators proportionately just as large. Because of their size, the forces needed to operate them, and the fact that neither balance control surfaces nor trim tabs had been invented, we decided to take a liberty with history and add trim tabs to the rudders and elevators. This would ease the strain on the entire structure of the aircraft. The instrument panel consists of an airspeed indicator, a non-sensitive altimeter, a compass, and an engine monitoring system, all resting on the board in front of the pilot stations. Just below the windscreen is a slip-skid indicator. For the first flights we also had a portable GPS on a bean bag mount for calibrating the airspeed indicator.

The two Curtiss OXX6 engines which have hand crank starters, are certified for a minimum of 63 octane fuel (we used 100LL). Also, as in the original airplane, water-cooled V-8 engines actually counter-rotate. This means they turn in opposite directions. Looking from the tail forward, the left propeller turns counterclockwise while the right one turns clockwise. This arrangement eliminates the adverse effects of engine torque and “P” (propeller) factor, while providing an updraft or free lift to the horizontal stabilizer. Also, I would like to point out here that on the America, the horizontal stabilizer is a positive airfoil, unlike modern aircraft which utilize a negative airfoil for dynamic stability.

The wide part of the lower hull is called the sponson. The sponson helps with both flotation and the planing ability. Planing ability is using the water sliding under the hull to push the aircraft up towards the surface. This lessens the wetted area, which lessens drag and allows the aircraft to accelerate to achieve flying speed. We have tried to not get too technical, but we want to explain the basic design differences of the America in order to better understand the aircraft itself. After all that planning, we have to admit that the first flight was totally unintentional. We pushed the throttles up to do some step taxi tests, and 11 seconds later, at a speed of about 38 mph, the America was airborne! There was no step at all! The aircraft, with all that power and wing area, went from displacement right into flight. With the trim set at neutral, the aircraft was indeed very tail heavy. It took all our strength just to nurse it back onto the water. In that flight and the following flights, we soon learned the flight characteristics of the America. By the way, in flight the noise level is extremely high. At first the ailerons were very stiff. This was corrected by fixing a jammed pulley. After that, they were still heavy but worked well. Even in a banked turn, the aircraft was extremely stable. The rudder also took a lot of foot pressure to move the ball out of the center just a little. Differential thrust also worked to control yaw. Speaking of thrust, we found the engines to be very easy to keep synchronized. Throttle rigging was near perfect as they stayed side by side unless testing differential thrust. Once trimmed, the aircraft could be controlled very easily. Also, once leveled off, surprisingly little power was needed to maintain a comfortable cruising speed of 65 mph. The huge wing just floated along with little effort. We used an approach speed of 55 mph and, at an altitude of around 5 feet, bled the power off completely. The aircraft floats in ground effect for quite a while, then, with absolutely no tendency to porpoise, it very softly settles onto the water in a most delightful manner at an airspeed of around 40 mph. It is the softest-landing seaplane either of us have ever flown.

We can only imagine the thrill Glenn Curtiss and John Cyril Porte must have experienced the first time the giant America lifted off the waters of Keuka Lake. It was by far the largest aircraft he had ever built and flown to date as well as the very first of all the great flying boats of the world. For us it was the thrill of a lifetime.