America the Cruisable
The seaplane Glenn Curtiss designed in 1914 may have had trouble on the ocean, but its reproduction is delighting a whole town on a lake.
- By James Wynbrandt
- Air & Space magazine, March 2008
NASM (SI Neg. #83-8674)
(Page 2 of 3)
The British military bought the America and a second Model H for its patrol aircraft development program, along with a score of H-4 Small America flying boats. Neither Model H survived. "They weren't lost in accidents," Doherty says. "They were tested to destruction. It was a harsh environment, and seaplanes tended to have short service lives."
But the basic hull design survived, adapted for the United Kingdom's larger coastal and anti-submarine patrol aircraft of World War I, starting with the Felixstowe F-1. Curtiss developed derivatives and sold them to both the U.S. and Imperial Russian navies. And the America lived on in the hulls of aircraft from Pan Am's Boeing 314 Clippers to PBY Catalinas to Howard Hughes' one-flight wonder, coincidentally also designated H-4. One has only to compare the broad, keeled bottoms of the America's descendants with the jowly sponsons projecting from the America hull to see the family resemblance. "All the great flying boats of the world have bloodlines [reaching] back to this one aircraft," says Jim Poel, a former airline captain, owner of a Republic RC-3 Seabee amphibian, and pilot of the reproduced America.
No complete set of blueprints for the original America exists. The museum based its reproduction on partial plans, photographs, and records of construction materials. The frame is ash and Sitka spruce; the wing ribs are pine. Like the original, the craft is painted dark red. Instead of the animal glues and silk Curtiss used to cover his Model H, the re-creation team used Polyfibre, a synthetic aircraft fabric, similar to Dacron.
Once completed, the reproduction was disassembled into three major sections, which were trucked half a mile to the lake and put back together. At the start of last September's Seaplane Homecoming Weekend, the flying boat sat atop a small gantry mounted on a pair of rails leading into the water. As the hour of launching neared, a crowd grew. The sky was overcast, making the day reminiscent of the black-and-white photographs documenting the original christening. Some onlookers gazed with the same curiosity seen in those old photos: Will this thing really fly?
Doubts were understandable. The original America was powered by two 90-horsepower OX-5 V-8 engines. Because the reproduction was 500 pounds heavier, the team decided to use vintage OXX-6 100-hp engines, which were sent out in 2006 for an extensive rebuild; the revisions included a new water pump for the counter-clockwise engine, plus new camshafts, valves, and valve springs for both. But the engines weren't ready for the September flight, so the restorers substituted the OX-5s.
Up close, the craft looks less aero than nautical. The sponsons give it the appearance of a hydroplane, a boat with winglike structures that enable it to skim the surface of the water at high speed. The cabin looks more like a pilot house than a cockpit, and the primary navigation instrument is a large ship's compass. While remaining largely faithful to the original, the reproduction has a digital engine monitor, and trim tabs have been added to the jumbo-size elevator and vertical stabilizer to reduce the forces needed to control it. "Basically it's very heavy," says Poel, who flew the museum's previous reproductions. "It will take a lot of force to move the controls."
In the early afternoon, seaplanes paraded around the south end of the lake before performing a flyover, circling Curtiss' grave at the Pleasant Valley Cemetery. Then, the America was eased into the water and towed to Depot Park, just down the shore, for christening. A crowd estimated at 3,000 awaited its arrival, and a half-dozen Grumman, Republic, and Cessna amphibians were arrayed around the adjacent beach in welcome. Museum volunteers in period costumes portrayed a welcoming committee to reenact the christening. Jim Poel, copilot Lee Sackett, and Orren Baisch (as Glenn Curtiss) stood in for the original christening party, with Poel's wife, Lovada, representing Katherine Masson, the daughter of a local vintner, who in 1914 was selected to christen the big flying boat. Then the reborn America was pushed off the beach and turned lakeward, the OX-5s were propped by hand and fired up, and the aircraft taxied out.
Word had been circulating since morning that the America was not quite ready to fly. Though the hull rode in the water at the same level seen in photos of the original, during water taxi tests conducted in the last few days it was not getting up on the step. "We sort of make the same mistakes Curtiss did, even though we know a lot more about aerodynamics," Poel says philosophically. "We still stumble along, and then we realize: That's what he was doing too."
"One of our friend's dads used to work with Curtiss, and he said a lot of things they tried didn't work the first time either," Wilder says.