As a lifelong history buff and aviation nerd, I am always seeking out aerospace-themed museums when I travel. That's why the collection of rare aircraft at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum was like a homing beacon for me. I simply had to go. I soon discovered that the museum, much like the man it honors, is quite eclectic and diverse. Of course, I found the airplanes I was after. I also found all types of wheeled vehicles, watercraft, and other odds and ends that are attributable to the late Mr. Curtiss and the Finger Lakes region of New York.
The museum is located in Curtiss' birthplace of Hammondsport, New York, a small lakeside town that often hosts tourists visiting the area's many vineyards and wineries. You half expect a small-town museum dedicated to one of its native sons to occupy a back room of the chamber of commerce. Not so here. The Curtiss Museum is housed in its own 57,000 square foot building. The expansive collection almost seems out of place in a town of less than 1000 residents. "We're the best kept secret in New York." joked curator Rick Leisenring. The good news here is that wine and old airplanes pair together well. The museum hosts about 30,000 visitors each year.
Who is Glenn H. Curtiss?
The appeal of the Curtiss Museum may not be obvious unless you know a little about the man who inspired it. It is difficult to describe Glenn Curtiss with brevity. The term "Daredevil Genius" comes to mind, but it still does not adequately capture the breadth of Curtiss' adventures and achievements.
I walked into the museum with only a rudimentary knowledge of Curtiss. I would learn much more over the next few hours. Curtiss is known primarily for his accomplishments as a pioneering aviator and the massive legal scuffles he endured opposite the Wright brothers. Yet, even before he found fame in the the sky, Curtiss was known as "the fastest man in the world"…a title he earned atop a motorcycle of his own design.
The museum contains numerous turn-of-the-century motorcycles built by Curtiss and others. Many of them appear to be little more than bicycles with engines grafted on as an afterthought. The mechanics are all out in the open for you to see. The ingenuity and rugged simplicity displayed by these motorcycles is amazing.
One particularly interesting motorcycle is a reproduction of the 1907 Curtiss 8 Cylinder that he raced at Ormond Beach, Florida the same year (the original is in the Smithsonian). Its 40-horsepower, 269-cubic-inch V8 engine was originally designed for use on blimps. Using a shaft drive system, the engine propelled a steel-nerved Curtiss and his rudimentary, elongated motorcycle to 136mph…on sand! This was faster than any type of land, sea, or air vehicle had ever gone before (much faster).
I visited the museum just a few days prior to the Wintercycle Therapy event. Locals were invited to bring in their personal motorcycles for display alongside the museum's exhibits. There were more than 200 motorcycles of all ages and descriptions. The place was bursting at the seams with 2-wheeled rides. There is also a vintage-themed motorcycle event every summer.
Although Curtiss tended to revel in dangerous, speed-related activities, he also had more pedestrian interests. When I caught up with Leisenring, he was working on the exhibit of the museum's Curtiss Aerocar, a luxury camping trailer designed by its namesake. Curtiss is generally credited with developing the "5th-wheel" style of trailer attachment…for campers towed by Ford Model Ts!
Other nearby exhibits showcasing Curtiss' handiwork are quite varied. There is the Curtiss Aeronola gramophone, as well as his photography equipment. You can also see gorgeous wooden boats that once roamed nearby Keuka Lake. Curtiss was instrumental in adapting lightweight airplane engines for marine applications. It's no wonder that he held more than 100 patents.
Curtiss also became involved with land development projects. During the 1920s, he founded and co-founded several cities near Miami, Florida. At the time of his death in 1930, the 52-year-old Mr. Curtiss was working on the country's first drive-thru safari park. Talk about a diverse resume!
Up In the Air
My true motivation for visiting the museum was the airplanes. Hammondsport is home to the largest gathering of complete Curtiss–derived aircraft in the world…more than 20 of them. Perhaps the most famous Curtiss airplane is the JN-4 Jenny, a WWI-era trainer. Unlike the uncovered Jenny that I recently examined at the Niagara Aerospace Museum, the Curtiss Museum's example is adorned in US Army Air Service colors and appears ready to take flight. It's a gorgeous piece of machinery.
A title commonly credited to Curtiss is "The Father of Naval Aviation". Prior to WWI, Curtiss designed and built the first practical seaplanes and float planes. He sold the US Navy its first airplane and trained its first pilots. Several of these designs (originals and reproductions) are on display. I found them particularly pleasing and intriguing to look at. The hulls of these floating airplanes have the graceful lines and impeccable craftsmanship so often found in wooden boats of the period (the museum has several of those too). This is in stark contrast with the scaffold-like minimalist framework and wire rigging of the flying surfaces on early aircraft. These seaplanes present an interesting combination of two art forms at very different stages of maturity and refinement.
Grease Monkey's Delight
Curtiss was a natural with engines. He designed most of the engines that went into his motorcycles and early airplanes. One of his companies would evolve to become the Curtiss-Wright Corporation in 1929, a major supplier of aircraft engines for several decades. The Curtiss museum has a large collection of aircraft and marine engines designed by Curtiss and his contemporaries. There are some engines I had never seen before…even some I had never heard of! Gearheads will find plenty to keep themselves occupied and mesmerized.
Related to the engines is a vast collection of wooden propellers. Airscrews of all shapes, sizes, colors, and conditions adorn the entire rear wall of the museum. Many of them are quite interesting. I'm sure that each has a unique story to tell.
There is no question that my favorite area of the Curtiss Museum was the restoration shop. This facility is equipped to repair or reproduce any type of exhibit that might be applicable for the museum. I spied what appears to be a Curtiss Pusher under construction during my visit.
One wall of the shop is decked out with a huge variety of antique woodworking tools. I initially thought the tools were some sort of exhibit. Leisenring assured me that the tools are actually used for restoration jobs.
Just outside the main restoration shop, a small outbuilding houses a very special long-term project for the museum. Within the thin metal walls is a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. This WWII fighter was made famous by the mercenary Flying Tigers with their shark-mouth paint jobs. Thousands of P-40s were used in nearly every theater of the war.
The museum's Warhawk crashed into a Florida swamp during the war. It stayed in its muddy cocoon for more than 40 years before salvagers removed it…or what was left of it. The museum's goal is to restore the fighter so that it can be put on static display. Leisenring indicated that they are using original parts wherever possible, including partially-rotted body panels. The work-in-progress reveals patches of shiny new sheet metal alongside the jagged edges of panels tormented by the swamp.
Of course, some parts of the P-40 simply returned to the earth. While many of these components will have to be completely rebuilt from factory drawings, luck smiled on the team of volunteer restorers. Nearby Mercury Aircraft Incorporated was a subcontractor that manufactured P-40 parts during the war. They are still in business. A scan of their storeroom yielded factory-fresh control surfaces and an oil tank that had been squirreled away decades ago. Those components now reside on the museum's Warhawk. The completed P-40 will certainly be a powerful and touching exhibit.
I Shall Return
Because of other obligations, I was only able to spend about 3.5 hours at the Curtiss Museum. It felt like a whirlwind tour that only scratched the surface. I hardly even looked at the car collection! Even now, as I look through my photos, I see interesting artifacts in the background and wonder "How did I miss that?" I will definitely be returning to fill in all of the blanks and soak in more of "New York's best kept secret".
If you would like to see more photos from my visit to the Glenn H. Curtiss museum, check out my facebook album.
Terry is a freelance writer living in Buffalo, NY. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.