Icons of Aviation History: Curtiss Jenny

The Curtiss Jenny was one of the primary contributions made by the United States to World War One aviation. After the war, the Jenny became famous as a barnstormer and spurred civilian interest in flight.


Curtiss Jenny at the Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola

In 1914, while the American aircraft manufacturer Glenn Curtiss was traveling in England, he met an engineer at Sopwith named B Douglas Thomas, and hired him as a designer. Curtiss had just produced a new 90-horsepower OX-5 engine, and, recognizing that his previous “pusher” designs with the engine located behind the cockpit were now obsolete, he was looking for a two-seat spotter plane that would place the new engine in front of the cockpit in a “tractor” configuration. Thomas was hired for the task.

In the end, the Curtiss company submitted two new designs to the US Army, a Model N from Thomas and a Model J from Curtiss himself. The Army placed an order for Model J’s, but requested some changes in the design. Curtiss responded by incorporating some of the features from Thomas’s Model N, and dubbed the result the Curtiss Model JN. It quickly became dubbed the “Jenny”.

The first version of the Jenny, the JN-2, had two wing planes of equal length, and incorporated the Curtiss flight control system in which a shoulder yoke was used to manipulate the wing control surfaces. A number of these were delivered to the US Army Signal Corps for reconnaissance work, and when the 1st Aero Squadron went to Mexico in 1916 in pursuit of the Mexican rebel Pancho Villa, they took some of their Jennies with them. It was the first combat use of aeroplanes by the US Army.

The pilots, however, didn’t like the performance of the unstable JN-2, especially the outdated shoulder yoke system, so Curtiss introduced the JN-3. This version had a single control wheel for the ailerons, a rudder bar, and wings of unequal length for better maneuverability. As well as being sold to the US Signal Service, the new Jenny became a favorite with civilian flying schools.

With the First World War raging in Europe, the British were now interested in the Jenny as a trainer and spotter, and after making some more changes to improve performance—including replacing the control wheel with the now-standard control stick—Curtiss introduced the JN-4 Jenny. A factory was set up in Canada to manufacture the new plane, and the US Army also adopted it as a trainer. In June 1917, after the United States entered World War One, the JN-4D model appeared, which became the iconic Jenny. The US Army and Navy placed large orders, as did several Entente nations. To keep up with production, Curtiss had to license the design to six other aircraft manufacturers. Over 6,000 Jennies were built during the war, many of them fitted with 180 horsepower Hispano-Suiza engines. Nearly all of the American pilots who flew in the war, and many of the Allied pilots as well, learned to fly in a Curtiss Jenny. Most new pilots received about 50 hours of basic training in a JN-4 over a period of six to eight weeks, before moving on to other aircraft.

When the war ended in 1918, the US Army still had around 3000 Jennies in service, which it declared “surplus” and put up for sale. Seeing an opportunity, Curtiss bought most of them himself, refurbished them, and sold them on the civilian market. The Canadian-built version, known as the “Canuck”, was also readily available. War surplus Jennies initially sold for around $4000, but eventually the price dropped to less than $100. It became known as the “Model T of the sky”.

Reliable and easy to fly, the Jenny became a staple of “barnstormers”, daredevil pilots, many of them former wartime fliers, who traveled around the country doing airshows featuring acrobatics, death-defying stunts such as “wing-walking”, and rides for paying audience members. It also became the preferred trainer for flight schools. Both Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart learned to fly in a Curtiss JN-4D.

The Jenny’s heyday lasted until 1927, when the US Government introduced regulations specifying safety requirements for any aircraft that carried passengers. The now-obsolete Jenny could not meet these standards, and barnstormers turned to newer designs. Most Jennies ended their lives rotting away in a barn somewhere.

Today, about 50 original Curtiss Jennies of various models can be seen on display. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum has a JN-4D which was manufactured under license by the Springfield Aircraft Corporation. The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry also has a JN-4D, exhibited as a “barnstormer”—upside down and with a wing-walker. The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in New York has a flyable JN-4D, while the US Air Force Museum in Dayton has a JN-4 and the postwar J-1 model. The Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola has an N-9 naval version of the JN-4.


4 thoughts on “Icons of Aviation History: Curtiss Jenny”

  1. Although the “barn find” (“…and that ‘1967 Chevy’ the grieving but clueless elderly couple sold for $500 when their son, who after buying it new drove just 75 miles before getting drafted and killed in Vietnam, was a mint condition Corvette Sting Ray!”) is a ubiquitous urban legend — or rural legend, maybe — I do personally know of one outstanding legitimate example:

    When we lived in suburban Chicago in the ’60s, one of my dad’s acquaintances (although I don’t remember now whether he was also a pilot or this story was his only aviation connection) had purchased a farm out in the country (you don’t have to drive just terribly far inland from Lake Michigan to hit farmland; for a couple years we flew out of a grass strip in Hinsdale). Only after moving in did he discover a sad-looking hulk of a biplane in the barn.

    It turned out to be the only known surviving Canuck Jenny. The Canada Aviation and Space Museum purchased the quite salvageable piece (for what I can only recall thinking a princely sum as a child…$10k, maybe?) and painstakingly restored it. If the Wiki entry for the JN4 is correct, it’s still the only surviving example.


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