Jennys Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The most important U.S.-designed and-built airplane of the World War I era.

Evolution of the JN Series

“Jenny” was the affectionate nickname given to any of several models of the Curtiss JN series of aircraft by thousands of U.S. and British flight cadets who learned to fly between 1915 and the early 1920’s. The JN aircraft design resulted from a 1914 request from the British government for a trainer aircraft for its army pilots.

By 1914, aeronautical pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss had established the largest aircraft manufacturing company in the United States, although most of his airplanes were sold either to the U.S. Navy or to European governments to avoid entanglement in his patent battles with the Wright brothers. Prior to the JN aircraft, most of Curtiss’s land-plane designs had used pusher propellers, which Curtiss believed gave the pilot better visibility, but, in response to an Army request, he developed a tractor design with the propeller in front. The initial design, termed the “J” model aircraft, was developed by B. Douglas Thomas, an engineer whom Curtiss hired from the Sopwith Company of England. The best elements of this design were combined with the best of Curtiss’s “N” aircraft designs to give the “JN” designation.

The aircraft evolved from the JN-2, which had two wings of equal span, into the JN-3 and the JN-4, which had slightly staggered (offset front-to-back) wings with the upper wing of greater span than the lower wing. Also departing from earlier Curtiss designs, the Jenny had flaplike ailerons built into the trailing edges of its upper wings rather than small winglike ailerons suspended between the wings’ tips. To avoid the hotly contested Wright patent on lateral control, `which the Wrights claimed included ailerons, the Curtiss planes were built without ailerons and shipped to England, where ailerons made by another Curtiss company in Canada were added.

World War I

The British loved the Jenny, calling it the perfect trainer, and more orders followed, leading Curtiss to build many in Canada, where the JN-4C became known as the Canuck. When the United States entered World War I, it also chose the JN-4 as its trainer, deciding to use European-designed planes for fighters and bombers. Over eight thousand of these various JN-4 versions were built as trainers, and hundreds more were built for private purchasers. Almost three thousand JN-4D versions, powered by the famed 90-horsepower Curtiss OX-5 engine, were built for the U.S. Army and others. The JN-4D cruised at 60 miles per hour, had a top speed of 75 miles per hour, and had a ceiling altitude of 6,500 feet. The basic JN-4D weighed 1,390 pounds and could carry 530 pounds of fuel, people, and baggage or mail. It had a 43.65-foot wingspan along its upper wing and a total wing area of 352 square feet. It was 27.33 feet long. The JN-4H, with a larger 150-horsepower Hispano-Suiza engine, boasted a slightly higher speed and was purchased in quantity later in the war by the U.S. Army. It was used for training well into the 1920’s. Curtiss also built a Navy version of the JN-4 with floats, designated N-9H.

After World War I

The end of the conflict in Europe brought thousands of former Army pilots home with a yearning to keep flying. They were joined by other young men and women who were excited about learning to fly, but opportunities for civilians to fly for a living were very limited. Unlike in Europe, no airlines existed in the United States, and the fledgling U.S. airmail service was being flown by Army pilots in Jennys. However, surplus Jennys were plentiful and inexpensive, and many were purchased by flight schools and groups of pilots who formed exhibition teams traveling the country giving airplane rides and barnstorming.

The absence of any regulations for flying in the United States enabled almost anyone with an airplane, regardless of pilot ability or airplane state of repair, to offer rides for a few dollars or to do stunt flying at county fairs or at farms on the outskirts of small towns. The Aero Club of America did issue pilot’s licenses, but neither the U.S. government nor most states required licensure or registration of any kind. Indeed, part of the thrill of going to a barnstorming exhibition was the anticipation of a crash, and it was fortunate that the limited speeds of the Jenny and similar planes enabled pilots to survive many accidents with only broken bones. Many young people of the era earned their flight training by working on the Curtiss OX-5 engine, by repairing the JN-4 airframe, and sometimes even by signing on as wing-walkers, who hung onto a Jenny’s wings and struts by their arms and legs as the plane flew over cheering local crowds.

The Jenny truly opened up the world of aviation to Americans, giving many an insatiable taste for flying. It did more to awaken the nation to the thrills and promises of aviation than any other airplane of its time. Many Jennys survive today in private and museum collections, and if one is fortunate, he or she might catch one flying an exhibition of antique aircraft.

Bibliography
  • Christy, Joe. American Aviation: An Illustrated History. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1987. A well-organized, thorough, and profusely illustrated review of aviation in America from the nineteenth century through the space age.
  • Donald, David, ed. The Complete Encyclopedia of World Aircraft. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1997. An outstanding source of photos, drawings, and statistics on almost every airplane ever built anywhere in the world.
  • Roseberry, C. R. Glenn Curtiss: Pioneer of Flight. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1991. The definitive biography of Curtiss and an excellent source of information on the origins of early Curtiss aircraft.

Airmail delivery

Barnstorming

Glenn H. Curtiss

Pilots and copilots

Training and education

Wing-walking

World War I

This squadron of Jennys, based in New Mexico, was used in a campaign against Pancho Villa in 1916.

(The Institute of Texas Cultures, courtesy Kirk McManus Collection, Aeroflax Inc.)
Categories: History Content