- Written by webmin
Aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss’ story is long and complex, and the part about airplanes is more than we can go into hereÂ (see the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum if you want a primer on his contributions). He was also a manufacturer of motorcycles early in his career (and the Aerocar later on), holding a world land speed record on one of his V-8s (the first known American example)Â for several years, and a pal to Henry Ford.
The story goes that Ford saw in Curtiss an equal, high praise indeed from curmudgeonly Ford. Ford saw Curtiss’ long-running feud/lawsuit with the Wright Brothers over patent infringements as an echo of his battle with the Selden patent – he offered offered Curtiss invaluable advice and assistance, including his lawyer, William Benton Crisp.
Curtiss and Ford first met when both were piloting their own vehicles on track – they were both at Ormond Beach in 1903, where Ford, sidelined with a car damaged in shipping, saw Curtiss victorious in a one-mile motorcycle race. Later on, after Ford built an experimental aircraft using a model T engine, Curtiss suggested to Ford he’d be better off using Curtiss engines in the Model T. Ford refused, although all indications are that Curtiss was serious. The implications are mindboggling – Ford could have had a compact, production V-8 two years before Cadillac had one.
Whether it was that encounter or another, Ford was enough of a Curtiss fan that he eventually bought a Curtiss MF flying boat for his…good friend…Evangeline Dahlinger.
The MF, AKA, the Seagull, was among Curtiss’ great contributions to naval aviation. Five are known to survive, including A-5543, an incredible, mostly original example that Bonhams will be displaying at their 590 Madison Avenue showroom starting April 3, during the second half of the NY Auto Show. “It’s really an incredible thing,” said Bonhams’ Rupert Banner. “It’s in fascinating, patinated order.” That doesn’t mean flying order, but considering how few early airplanes have survived, and how many of those are in anything approaching original condition, it’s an amazing relic.
The controls are clearly automotive–I’d be willing to bet the wheels come directly from a car.
According to Bonhams:
Built by the Naval Aircraft Factory at its facility in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, A-5543 was the sixty-first Curtiss MF flying boat produced in a batch of eighty. There are no log books and its service history is undocumented, but an effort is underway to ascertain as much as possible from naval archives and records in FAA dead storage. Almost certainly A-5543 was posted to a naval aviation training station, possibly at Pensacola or Atlantic City. It is thought to have been released for sale as government surplus in 1923 or ‘24.
Records are sketchy, but it appears that A-5543 had a single owner, William H. Long, who was the owner and longtime operator of the Lorain, Ohio airport. Long is said to have based the MF at Sandusky Bay, from which he made frequent trips to Cedar Point Amusement Park, presumably flying joyriders and sightseers. With the advent of federal control of civil aviation in late 1926, A-5543 was licensed as a 2-seater and received the Dept. of Commerce registration C903, later as NC903, in compliance with commercial flight regulations at that time. The engine appears to be the 100-hp Curtiss OXX6, outwardly identical to the ubiquitous OX5.
Long’s pilot was an Early Bird by the name of Albert J. Engel, who began flying in 1911. Engel is said to have been the son of a designer employed by the White Co. of Cleveland, builder of luxury automobiles. Albert apparently had the wherewithal to purchase his own Curtiss-built pusher biplane, which cost about $5,000.
Engel acquired another Curtiss-built pusher which he operated on pontoons from Rocky River at the Lakewood Yacht Club, now the Cleveland Yachting Club. He called it the “Bumble Bee” and barnstormed with it from the Edgewater and Willow Beach Parks as well as Chautauqua Lake until about 1914.
Some thirty-odd years later Engel and his friend Bill Long refurbished the MF with new wing fabric and varnished the hull. They subsequently donated their vintage aircraft to Cleveland’s Frederick C. Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum on June 21, 1945. On display for many years at the Western Historical Reserve Society, the MF was retired from public exhibition in recent times.
More on the MF from Bonhams:
The MF was the culmination of Glenn Curtiss’s greatest contribution to aviation; namely, the perfection of the seaplane. Glenn didn’t invent the flying boat as some biographers would have us believe, but he was among the first to experiment with pontoons and flying boat hulls. Glenn was nothing if not an innovator and inventor. The aileron was a GHC invention and it quickly replaced the primitive wing-warping method of lateral control patented by the Wrights.
In some quarters Curtiss was considered a scoundrel, who sought to rob the Wright brothers of their rightful place as the leader of world aviation. He certainly made vast inroads in a business that had been monopolized by the Wrights and his perfection of the flying boat was largely responsible for the preeminence he was beginning to enjoy. The Wrights sued Curtiss for patent infringements and spent the next decade and more trying to run him out of business. In the end, however, the Curtiss and the Wright interests settled their antipathy by combining their vast resources under the Curtiss-Wright banner.
Curtiss produced hundreds of F-boats for a worldwide market. Indeed, he probably sold more aircraft abroad than he did at home, for a while. The Russians were among his best customers, so was Japan, Italy, England and France. One of the spinoffs of the F-boat was a scaled-up version christened the “America,” built in 1914 for projected trans-Atlantic operations. The onset of the war in Europe ended plans to fly the Atlantic and the “America” was sold to the Royal Navy for coastal patrol duties.
By 1917, the European powers were far ahead of the United States in developing combat aircraft and the need to acquire modern equipment proved beyond the capabilities of our aircraft industry, including both the Curtiss and Wright companies. Consequently, the U.S. military establishments turned to France, Italy and Britain for equipment, with the exception of training aircraft, such as the ubiquitous Curtiss JN4D “Jenny” and the Curtiss flying boats.
The “America” foretold the shape of our greatest contribution to the 1914-18 Allied war effort in the air; namely, the anti-submarine patrol boat. In the ensuing four years the Curtiss company produced hundreds of large, multi-engine H-class flying boats for the USN, whose primary function in the war was to seek out and destroy the Kaiser’s submarine fleet.
The U.S. Navy’s fleet of F-boats, used almost entirely for training, remained essentially unchanged from the original design dating from 1912-13. By 1918, an improved model was needed, which resulted in the Model MF, meaning modernized F-boat. It was powered by the 100-hp Curtiss OXX6, and had many improvements, including sponsons borrowed from the “America”, which greatly improved planning and stability. Curtiss delivered an order for six MFs to the Navy and a further 16 on a second order for 47, which was terminated in November 1918 by the Armistice.
The MF was an excellent trainer and the Navy procured eighty more from the Naval Aircraft Factory at Philadelphia, which had been created in 1917 to offset lagging deliveries from both foreign and domestic suppliers. The NAF had in fact produced under license at least as many Curtiss types as the Curtiss company itself. The MFs were delivered in 1919-20, primarily to naval training units at Pensacola, Miami, Key West and the Curtiss-managed flying schools established at Atlantic City and Buffalo.
Some MFs saw operational service with the fleet. At least one is known to have been aboard the minelayer U.S.S. Aroostook, flagship of the Naval Air Detachment assigned in 1919 to the Pacific Fleet. Due to postwar cutbacks, however, it is probable that many MFs saw no service at all and their naval history amounted to a year or so in storage.
Naval inventories for July 1921 and 1922 show 87 and 73 MFs on charge respectively. Many of these aircraft were subsequently sold as surplus and the Curtiss company converted others to what became known as the MF “Seagull”, which mainly involved engine changes to increase horsepower and seating to accommodate additional passengers. A variety of engine options were available, of which the 150-hp Hispano-Suiza and 160-hp Curtiss C-6 were the most numerous.
Among the first buyers of the MF Seagull was Sid Chaplin, brother of comedian Charlie Chaplin, who put up the money. Sid became a Curtiss distributor for Southern California and sold a number of MFs to sportsmen and commercial operators. He used one himself to start a passenger service to Catalina, which logged 1,067 charter flights between July 1 and September 15, 1919.
A former naval flight instructor, Capt. Harry Rogers, dba Rogers Air Lines, was probably the first commercial operator on the East Coast to use Seagulls. He had a fleet of five for instruction and charter work, operating from several locations, including the beaches of Rye, N.Y., Lake George and Port Washington. During the winter months Rogers and his crew of five or more pilots operated out of Miami.
During the winter months Rogers Air Lines operated out of Miami. One of his Seagulls was detailed to the Bahamas to fly the colonial governor, Sir Charles Orr and other administrators around the islands. One such outing included a survey of San Salvadore, the island where Columbus made his first landfall in the New World. The Seagull, piloted by Bob Moore, was the first aircraft to reconnoiter the site for photographic purposes, using a copy of a chart that Columbus had made himself.
The Volstead Act of 1919 brought prohibition and booze smuggling. The Bahamas became a supply center for rum-runners, as did various points in Canada and Mexico. A number of Curtiss F-boats and MF Seagulls were involved in the illicit trade early on. Many pilots ran afoul of the law, were busted and went to prison. Others, more lucky, would later distinguish themselves with the infant airline industry. Ed Musick of Pan American’s Pacific Division was one of them.
Rogers was down to two Seagulls and three Fairchild FC-2 floatplanes when he opened his eighth season at Miami in November 1928. He still firmly believed that the Seagull was the best flying boat in its class ever built. The upshot of that was his own metal-clad version called the Rogers RBX Sea Eagle. It was powered by a 150-hp Curtiss C6 and accommodated three passengers and the pilot. The onset of the Great Depression precluded further production and Harry signed on with Pan American Airways as operations manager of the Miami-Nassau service.
Howard Hughes had his first ride in a Curtiss MF. It was in 1926, during the Harvard-Yale boat races on the Connecticut River. We don’t know for certain who the pilot was, but almost certainly it was either Harry Rogers or one of his pilots. Hughes remained a seaplane enthusiast throughout his flying career and was known for his habit of borrowing seaplanes and disappearing for days on end with a new girlfriend.
Perhaps the most newsworthy MF was the one that accompanied the Alexander Hamilton Rice Expedition to Brazil for a 9-month stint exploring the Amazon. Piloted by Walter Hinton of NC-4 trans-Atlantic fame, the MF ‘boat was the camera platform for filming 1,700 miles of the Amazon and its environs. Capt. Albert W. Stevens chronicled the expedition for the National Geographic. Stevens, an Army aviator specializing in aerial photography, had to hand crank the ‘boat’s Kirkham engine for each start up, which necessitated jumping into the water when the MF was afloat with the propeller turning. Voracious piranhas and other denizens of the region made these activities risky and Stevens became a very fast swimmer in his haste to either get ashore or back in the cockpit, depending on the mission for the day.