Better than Wright — Curtiss
Better than Wright — Curtiss
These exhibits are on display at the National Air & Space Museum on the National Mall and wonderfully represent so much of early aircraft development in the Unites States developed by Glenn Curtiss — the man who selflessly promoted aviation, paid his pilots above minimum wage, matured the concept of the flying boat including invention of the stepped hull and made aviation practical in the U.S. Though not intending to be a spoiler — none of which can be said of the Wright Brothers. Apologies if that upsets a comfortable paradigm but it is simply a matter of history, as has been addressed in previous posts on this blog.
Curtiss began as a mechanic and was soon making lightweight engines. One of these was an eight cylinder V-twin he mounted onto a motorcycle frame which set a land speed record on Daytona Beach. Glenn Curtiss wanted to sell an engine to the Wright Brothers for their first powered aircraft but the Wrights did not accept. They instead used an engine of less power and increased weight though it had an aluminum block.
Curtiss soon became associated with the Aerial Experiment Organization (AER), a collegial research group which was beneficial in nature by developing ways to fly and without ownership of what they discovered — as was the custom of the time until the Wright’s came along, but that change was inevitable. Glenn Curtiss flew the AER June Bug to the winning of the first aeronautical prize ever offered, the Scientific American Cup, by flying a course distance exceeding 1km. The Wrights had been offered a chance to try the first attempt but they declined as they were wrapped up with the U.S. Army. They would have also been required to place wheels on their Flyer as well as dispense with the catapult launch they favored at the time.
As the Wrights had done well with regard to landing contracts with the U.S. Army. Glenn Curtiss then, naturally, sought business with the U.S. Navy to avoid direct competition with the Wright Brothers. This led Curtiss to develop the flying boat, which he first called a hydroaeroplane.
Later, Curtiss significantly refined the flying boat generic design with the twin tractor aircraft. It was this design that was the world’s first to blend the hull into the fuselage. This design, as shown in the model below, is where Curtiss decided to employ modern boat hull technology. He observed that the aircraft could benefit from placing a “step” — a dramatic and discontinuous change in the hull configuration — aft of the center of gravity — and the world has never looked back. Incorporating steps, larger flying boats had two or more, essentially gave the flying boat different hulls at different speeds making taking off possible with immensely shortened hull lengths, weights and required power. A stepped hull also allows a flying boat to rotate at a lower airspeed which increases the angle of attack and lift, just as a land based aircraft does, reducing take off distance substantially.