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Unlocking the Sky: Glen Hammond Curtiss and the race to invent the airplane

19 November 2012

Unlocking the Sky: Glen Hammond Curtiss and the race to invent the airplane — book review

The Wright Brothers stood on the shoulders of many and in doing so were the first humans to experience flight under power and control. They not only opened the door to aviation as we know it today, they established an engineering paradigm in their approach to solving the design challenges of manned flight. Others soon followed, also significantly advancing aviation, and chief among them is Glen Hammond Curtiss.

Though today not as famed as the Wright Brothers there should be no mistaking the significance of his contributions as many features of today’s aviation are what Curtiss invented or first effectively applied — ailerons, flying boats as we know them, stepped hulls and floats, tricycle landing gear, the enclosed cockpit, the gyroscopic stabilizer (with Elmer Sperry) and much more. Seth Shulman — accomplished author — has written this comprehensive book on Curtiss. Unlocking the Sky pulls the reader into the intriguing story of Curtiss’s life beginning as a mechanic, engine maker and speed record holding motorcyclist to record making aircraft designer and pilot. The book ends with Curtiss’s retirement from aviation though he continued into real estate as well as flying school careers — he was instrumental in creating towns, flying schools and airfields in Florida, for example — Opa-locka, Miami Springs and Hialeah are the notable among these. After all, Unlocking the Sky is about Curtiss’s evolutionary contributions to aviation so his later parallel careers, his third and fourth, are subject matter for other titles.

The aviation career of Curtiss is more than enough to fill a book, however. Shuman also brings to life the long running battle the Wright Brothers brought against Curtiss (among others) as well as how generous Glenn Curtiss was to friends and employees. He was paying pilots a much higher rate than other manufactures, for example, though he had no legal obligation to do so. Shuman looks into the details of the matter concerning the Wright Brothers spying upon Curtiss at one time and the fiasco (in terms of his reputation) of Curtiss’s attempt to redesign and fly Langley’s Aerodrome. This legal battle was epic — eventually involving aeronautical pioneer Octave Chanute as well as industrial giant Henry Ford — and grew as the Wrights also sued foreign governments and others. It really took WW I to end it with the Federal government stepping in to quell the issue. This subject alone is worthy of a book with its complexity and mix of personalities as well as agendas. Wright vs. Curtiss, like political and religious discussions, can quickly polarize people, parting them onto opposite sides of the matter, but Shuman navigates the facts and context with objectivity and fairness.

The Wright Brothers effectively departed aviation design in 1912 and, coincidentally, Curtiss began designing the America in his attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The aircraft may have done so — the advent of WW I in 1914 ruined those chances as the sponsors in Great Britain instead tasked the aircraft for patrolling duties — and remarkably looks like a design in keeping with the 1930s, two decades later.

The story of Glen Curtiss, a man who had no use for public relations staff, is more exciting than fiction and Shuman tells it with objectivity, skill, clarity and warmth. A book well worth the reading, Unlocking the Sky is also an excellent reference book with its thorough index and plentiful illustrations. 

Unlocking the Sky: Glen Hammond Curtiss and the race to invent the airplane — Seth Shulman, 2002, ISBN 0-06-019633-5, 220 pp.

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