top of page


An excerpt from Peter Pigott's forthcoming book: The Golden Age of Flying Boats

Glenn Curtiss (photographed in 1909) the 'father' of the flying boat

“Isn't it astonishing that all these secrets have been preserved for so many years” wrote Orville Wright “just so that we could discover them. ” With a 12 second flight on December 17, 1903 he and brother Wilbur changed our world forever. The dawn of the 20th century was a time when men with imagination, tenacity and courage could soar into the heavens, hoping like Icarus they wouldn’t fall to an untimely death. To fly higher, faster, longer was an obsession of these first aviators and those who succeeded are the fathers of aviation today. As with the computer start-ups Google and Apple a century later, their beginnings were humble - tinkering in a bicycle repair shop. The bicycle craze of the day afforded these entrepreneurs the materials required to build a flying machine - wooden spars, fabric, glue, ropes and chains. The sustained belief in themselves was limited only by their finances.

That two self-taught American bicycle mechanics working in isolation had just developed the first aircraft was beyond comprehension. The brother's penchant for secrecy until 1908 meant that few knew of or believed them. The French, who, since the Montgolfier brothers, held that all things aeronautical were part of their national patrimony, did not. To most people, attempting to emulate nature whether in balloons, airships, gliders or hydroplanes was vaguely sacrilegious-and led nowhere. After all, none of the giants of aeronautical flight, including Sir George Cayley, Otto Lilienthal, Hiram Maxim and Octave Chanute, had solved the complexities of defying gravity. So how did small-town unsophisticated bicycle mechanics do it?

A modern replica of the Curtiss Albany Flyer

Lake Keuka is one of the Finger Lakes scratched by glaciers into the hills of upstate New York. Keuka means “Canoe Landing” in the Iroquois language and the lake is long and thin, freezing in the winter. At its southern end is the town of Hammondsport with its Civil War monument, many churches and steamboats. Glenn Hammond Curtis was born here on May 21, 1878, four years after the railroad arrived. His father had a harness shop on Pulteney Street and for Curtiss it must have been a Huck Finn childhood on the lake. Those who knew him remembered that he had an intensity to improve - himself and machines. Although he excelled in mathematics, Curtiss had little use for school and left to care for a widowed mother and deaf sister. The biggest employer locally was Eastman Kodak in Rochester and initially Curtiss worked for them, until returning home he took over the harness goods shop, expanding it to bicycle repair. In 1901, he motorized a bicycle and then expanded to begin his own motorcycle business at Hammondsport. To publicize his motorcycles like the V8 Hercules, Curtiss raced them, covering a mile at the speed of 136.3 miles per hour in 1907. The newspapers called him “The Fastest Man on Earth”. As the Wrights had discovered, because of the inherent instability of bicycles Curtiss found he had a natural feel for aerodynamics, and it was only a matter of time before his lightweight engines were powering airships and later- aircraft.

Such was the fame of Hammondsport's favorite son that he was invited by Alexander Graham Bell to join the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) at Baddeck, Nova Scotia along with T. Selfridge, J.A.D. McCurdy and F.W. Baldwin. Financed by Bell’s wife, the Association set out “ ‘to get into the air’ by the construction of a practical “aerodrome” (as Bell called ‘aircraft’) driven by its own motive power and carrying a man.” To foster competition, Bell had each of the four young men design his own aircraft for a documented controllable flight. On March 12, 1908 Selfridge's “Red Wing” biplane took off on runners from frozen Lake Keuka and actually flew 319 feet! Because of the Wright’s secrecy, this was the first public demonstration of a powered aircraft flight in the United States. But on March 17, tilted by the wind, the “Red Wing” was demolished in a crash, the members realizing it needed better lateral stability. They put rudimentary ailerons as small flaps on the wings of the next plane Baldwin’s “White Wing”. On May 13 McCurdy flew it from an old nearby racetrack to a height of 20 feet and distance of 200 yards before it crashed. In June, Baldwin flew Curtiss's “June Bug” named after the flying beetles then banging on screens in the warm summer evenings, from the same track. It did so well that on the Fourth of July Curtiss himself would fly it a distance of 5,000 feet, winning the coveted Scientific American trophy and $2,500.

The Curtiss NC4

He also saw the opportunity of being the first person to perfect an aircraft capable of lifting off water. The Wrights carried a canoe for flotation in case they came down in water. Why not make the water the aircraft’s natural habitat ? Surrounded by lakes and rivers, Curtiss realized that such a “flying boat” would not only be safer but would dispense with airfields - such as they were - giving every Hammondsport in the world its own air service.

In December re-configuring the “Red Wing” (now renamed “Loon”) with canoe-like floats, Curtiss first attempted to become airborne on the icy lake. This time it refused to leave the water - the suction created by the lake surface anchoring it down. He and McCurdy rebuilt the machine in the winter darkness but when a float was holed accidentally, it sank at the dock – at which point they wired Bell: “Submarine test most successful.” Getting airborne on smooth ice was easier and returning to Baddeck, Curtiss witnessed McCurdy’s “Silver Dart” take off from a frozen lake surface on February 23, 1909 to perform the first sustained controlled flight in the British Empire. Having accomplished its mission of powered flight, the AEA then disbanded.

Once the monopoly of the Wrights, the aviation field was now crowded. At the 1909 flying meet at Rheims, France where Curtiss won the Bennett Trophy on August 29, there were 23 different aircraft which broke the Wright’s speed and altitude records. The brothers had refused to enter the competition on the grounds that they didn’t compete with imitators. The truth was that their aircraft, with its wing-warping controls, was obsolete. By continually innovating, Curtiss was now in the lead.

The Curtiss Model H

Unlike the Wrights, Curtiss relished hometown publicity and knowing the value of public opinion encouraged spectators. “Flying was such a novelty at that time,” he would later write, “that nine-tenths of the people who came to watch the preparations were skeptical while others declared that “that thing won’t fly, so what’s the use of waiting around?” Instead, the Wrights put their energies into the courts, suing other aviation pioneers, the litigation destroying their business and reputations.

Growing up on Lake Keuka, Curtiss would have been familiar with the locomotion of insects and birds on water and how they overcame the surface tension to create a hydrodynamic lift and get airborne. His only other competition was Henri Fabre, a French marine engineer experimenting with hydroplanes. On March 28, 1910 Fabre would succeed in taking off from Etang de Berre, Martigues, near Marseilles, becoming the inventor of the floatplane. When $10,000 was offered for the first aircraft to fly from Albany NY to Manhattan, Curtiss saw his chance to build an actual flying boat. Much of the flight would be over the Hudson River where he could land if necessary. His “Albany Flier” the world's first practical flying boat had metal tanks as pontoons and a long tubular flotation device made of fabric and filled with cork for buoyancy.

Tests on Lake Keuka went well and May 29, 1910 he took off from an island in the Hudson River near Albany and with two fuel stops set down in New York City harbour in an actual flight time for the 143 miles of 2 hours and 51 minutes. The tubular flotation device proved unnecessary as whatever the reason, each time the flying boat left the river's surface easily.

When his motorcycle company went into receivership in the Fall, hoping to attract the attention of the United States Navy, Curtiss moved to the warmer waters of North Island, San Diego for the winter months. The United States Army had just bought the Wright’s Model A and with his experience of water-borne aviation he hoped the Navy would be interested. As an incentive, he offered to instruct a naval officer without charge in the construction and operation of a Curtiss hydro-aeroplane. Lieutenant T.G. “Spuds” Ellyson was an engineer with the skills that Curtiss lacked. The pair worked on the problem of getting airborne from the water and on January 26, 1911, one of their float configurations allowed the aircraft to rise a short distance and land. To break the suction, a longer waterplane surface and the upturned lip on the main float got the aircraft to bounce into the air. The Navy was impressed enough to order 2 Curtiss machines designated A-1s to be made in Hammondsport which with the naval personnel being instructed there had become an unofficial naval facility. It was the beginning of naval aviation in the United States.

Other aircraft designers like the Benoist Company of St. Louis, Missouri emulated Curtiss and designed their own hydroplanes. Even the Wright brothers who had by now lost their lead, built an “Aeroboat”, hoping to interest the Navy with it. Through the winter of 1911-12, Curtiss concentrated on designing an actual flying boat. He envisioned a large flat-bottomed hull to which a lower wing would be attached, and the tail assembly held by an outrigger framework. A 60 hp engine that drove two tractor type propellers by means of a chain drive would be enough to get it in the air. Built at Hammondsport, the flying boat was shipped across the country to North Island for tests. But it refused to take off, the suction keeping it glued to surface. Returning to Hammondsport with the machine, Curtiss moved the engine up between the wings, changing its center of gravity. But the aircraft still wouldn't be persuaded into the air. Something was eluding him. Then, from a motorboat running alongside the aircraft at full power, he noted the water flow around the hull. Back on shore, he made a rough sketch of his solution and asked his workmen to fasten two wooden wedges to the flat bottom. This broke the lines along the hull, reduced drag and allowed the flying boat to lift into the air. To overcome hydrostatic friction (the suction-like force that keeps flying boat hulls from breaking free of the water), Curtiss had invented the “step”- the angled break that enable the flying bat to rise off the water. Later, the F-Boat as it would be called, was given a streamlined bow and a V bottom, ending the suction problem. From that day on, every flying boat built would employ the “step” principle to escape the suction. Curtiss would patent this in 1915 and hundreds of F-Boats would be built with Curtiss selling them to Russia and Japan. The first practical flying boat, it would join the 1905 Wright Flyer, the Douglas DC-3 and the Boeing 747 in changing the world.

The Saunders Roe Princess. The 'step', halfway down the, hull breaks the suction of the water, allowing take off

290 views0 comments
bottom of page