Last time, on Plane Tales, I told you about a Curtiss Jenny that I’ve been seeing on the side for many years. A plane always—literally—just out of my reach. Today I want to tell you about another Jenny. One I was actually able to touch.
But first a word from our sponsor, the History Channel. Oh. Wait. We don’t have a sponsor here at Plane Tales, much less the History Channel. Oh well, here we go with the Cliff Notes history of the Curtiss Jenny, totally on the house.
The Jenny, technically the Curtiss JN-4 (the lettering on the planes used a kindergarten open-topped 4 that resembled a “y,” hence the origin of the nickname), was the primary training aircraft for US Army Air Corps prior to, and during, World War I. Did you know we went to war with only 35 military pilots? By the armistice, less than two years years after we entered the fray, that number had swelled to over 10,000—and ninety-five percent of those pilots trained in Jennies.
While that’s a remarkable feat, I think it was the second chapter of Jenny’s life that made us all fall in love with her. And for that, ironically, we also have the war to thank.
During World War I, the U.S. government spent more time building up troop strength in both men and materials than it did actually fighting—not to diss the sacrifice of my grandfather and thousands of other fighting men who saw ten lifetimes worth of combat. Still, in this short time more than six thousand Jenny trainers were built. But as soon as the war ended, the government pulled the plug on the military build up, and that growth came to a screeching halt. Then it reversed as the military was rapidly downsized. In the years following the war, the civilian airplane market was flooded with military surplus Jennies as the government sold off unneeded assets. So many more planes were built than needed, that some of the surplus Jennies were still unassembled in their shipping crates when they were sold. While common aviation lore has it that a brand-spanking-new Jenny with a spare engine could be had for as little as $250 right after the war, that’s a myth, although most of them sold for half the eight-grand each that the government paid for them a short time before.
Who bought them?
Hell raising unemployed ex-army pilots. Yeah. The era of the barnstormer was born from military surplus. Now the plane that taught most pilots to fly became the first airplane most Americans got to see in the flesh, as small bands of gypsy pilots roamed the heartland selling rides and preforming stunts.
Image by Suchiu Art, I’ve already ordered a copy for my office wall!
But as aviation grew up, the government lost its tolerance for this wild west of the air. The powers that be wanted to make aviation respectable, and the hell raisers with their wing walking and loop the loops were in the way. They had to go, as far as the government was concerned, and to get rid of them, the bureaucrats broke out their usual weapon: Paper. Simply put, the government regulated the barnstormers clean out of business in 1927 with new pilot license, maintenance, and airworthiness requirements. The Jennies weren’t able to meet the new airworthiness guidelines, and by 1930 it was illegal to fly one in most parts of the United States. In fact, the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce sent letters to Jenny owners demanding that they be destroyed. Most were.
But not all. Ironically it was because of this barnstormer-killing set of regulations that my wish to touch a Jenny finally came true. And with that rather long introduction, we come to today’s Plane Tale…
It started with an invitation. Lupita Wisener, who races with me in SARL, pulled me aside at the Mark Hardin Air Race. The public-use, privately owned airport that her husband’s family has run for generations was about to mark an important milestone: The 100th Anniversary of the first airplane to land there, which was a Curtiss Jenny. Would I like to visit? It might be an interesting article, she hinted.
She was right. It did sound like an interesting article. She told me a bit more about the strip, 3F9, Wisener Field in tiny Mineola, Texas, a mere 45 miles on east of where we were standing. They had a concrete strip, a grass strip, an historic airmail beacon, a museum, and by the way, we have an authentic barnstorming Jenny. It flew in the family’s Royal Flying Circus that brothers Henry and Bryce Wisener formed in 1926. I pictured “my” Jenny, hanging just out of reach above me at Denver International.
I was sold.
Even though it was only a hop and a skip in Tessie, we just didn’t have the time to fly over after the race. We had to get back home. Some sort of silly work commitments were getting in the way of just Plane Fun. But looking at a planning chart later, I decided that a reasonable detour could be made to pay a visit on our way back home from the Big Muddy Air Race.
“Let’s put the top down,” I said to Lisa, as we skimmed above the trees at 500 feet, looking for the airport. According to our GPS, we should be right on top of it, but all we could see was an unbroken expanse of tall deep green trees. For some reason, I’d pictured Wisener Field on open, wind swept prairie.
Photo by Lisa F. Bentson
Lisa gave me a quizzical look, as if to say, I don’t think lowering doors of clear Plexiglas will improve our visibility enough to make the field easer to spot. “Open cockpit,” I explained, sliding my side down to a blast of sauna hot and wet Texas air, “to pretend we’re in the Jenny doing the first-ever landing at Wisener. If we can find it.”
“Ah,” crackled Lisa’s voice in my headset, and she gamely slid her side down.
Right on top of the airport I spot it. A painfully narrow (and short to my high-altitude eye) ribbon of black centered in a slender slit in the trees. Ya gotta be kidding me… We bank left, enter the pattern a bit lower than suggested and start to descend.
An especially tall group of trees stands proudly right off the approach end of the runway. I doubt my ability to descend sharply enough once over them to get to the ground without running out of runway. Bizarrely, Dr. Seuss pops into my head:
I do not like the look of the trees,
It makes me a little week in the knees.
I do not like the runway length,
I’m not sure my engine has the strength.
To my left is a lovely gap in the towering thicket of green. I drop towards it, down into it, but now I’m at a forty-five degree angle to the runway. It’s rare that I wish for rudder pedals, but this is one approach I really would have liked to slide-slip into. I make the best of it, dropping down towards the anorexic runway 18L, but I’m high and fast. I know a lost cause when I see one. I push the throttle forward and initiate a go-around.
Up we go again above the solid green mass of trees. Banking into the pattern, I lose sight of the runway again for a minute. Where the….? Oh! There it is. Here we go…
I use the same tactic, an angled final approach, but this time I’m slower and we settle onto the runway without amassing tree leaves in our landing gear. I feel like I’m in a canyon of green. But when we taxi to a stop, get out, and stand on the wing, the trees look harmless. Shorter from the ground than they looked from the air. Clearly, I don’t have barnstormer balls.
Photo by Lisa F. Bentson
While Lupita takes Lisa and I on a leisurely guided tour of the grounds, I’m secretly chomping at the bit to see the 100-year-old airplane. Before I meet the Wisener Jenny, I get to learn a little more about her. Apparently, the two Wisener brothers dearly loved the old Jenny, but they understood her time was passing when they got the letter from the government. Plus, they already had newer airplanes that could meet the airworthiness mandates, and they must have known this was not a battle they could win. They responded to the letter, certifying that they had destroyed the now officially un-airworthy Jenny.
Then, instead, they secretly and defiantly took her apart piece by piece, and stored her in a barn-like hangar at the edge of the runway. Which is why this Jenny is one of only about thirty or so that still exist on the entire planet.
But eight decades in the barn were unkind to the Wisner Jenny. Most of her fabric skin rotted away. Her metal rusted. Her wood skeleton dried and cracked. When the current generation of Wiseners decided to pull the Jenny back out of the barn they had some important decisions to make. Should they restore her or leave her authentic? Should they clean her up, or leave her as they found her?
In the end, they simply put the remaining parts back together, except for the rusty, corroded engine, which they placed on the hangar floor next to the skeletal Jenny.
Most of the other remaining Jennies are either fully restored, or restored enough to look like they would have looked in their heyday. Some still actually fly. At the AirVenture museum there’s a half-covered Jenny, but it has shiny, varnished spars and ribs. I doubt it looked that good the day it left the Curtiss factory.
So this Jenny is sad, but she’s real. She’s a time capsule that shows the complexity of the construction, and the materials and techniques used at the dawn of the mass-production of airplanes. Sure, she’s dirty and dusty and rusty, but she’s also a holy relic, and I’m pretty sure it’s some sort of sin to clean up a holy relic. It would be like sending the Shroud of Turin out to the dry cleaners to get the stains out.
A picture of the Wisner Jenny in her heyday graces the engine compartment. Photo by Lisa F. Bentson.
I walked around her time and time again. Unlike most museums, it was possible to get up close and personal with this Jenny. I took in the wood tailskid with its metal collar, the rudder bar, the fragmentary remains of the instrument panel. The model T Ford radiator. The dried and cracked leather around the twin cockpits, the oddly broken control stick, snapped off close to the floor.
Photo by Lisa F. Bentson
Her wheels are spoaked like a bicycle. Her fuselage is pencil-thin. Her wings are tall and wide, a maze of wire, ribs, and spars that’s dizzying. We think of Jennies as simple beasts. Instead, her complexity is mid-numbing.
And, yes, once I was done taking her in with my eyes, I was able to reach out my hand and touch her.
Finally, I was able to touch aviation history.
Photo by Lisa F. Bentson