The Curtiss is safely tucked into its Winter home – The National Naval Aviation Museum. Shortly, it will move deeper into the display courtyard, to eventually rest beneath the other early Curtiss birds, the NC-4, the Jenny and several others in the Pioneer quad of the main building. When it arrives under the NC-4, you absolutely must go to the Museum, if only to look at the monsterous NC-4 of 1919 in comparison to the tiny Curtiss Pusher. What is significant about those two Curtiss aircraft? The Pusher replicates the aircraft in which Navy men first attempted to spread their wings. The NC-4 IS the very aircraft in which Navy men first spread those wings across the Atlantic Ocean. It took the US Navy and Glenn Curtiss less than eight years to go from fledglings to transoceanic pioneers. Not to be lost in the viewing are the other Curtiss planes in the quad which emphasize exactly just how vital the Curtiss partnership was in forging the birth of Naval Aviation. All up, this winter of our Centennial will mark a “must-see” addition to your bucket list. Do it!
To wrap the Pensacola Air Show, we’ll rehash some already reported ground, with changes as new facts have emerged; then, the delivery, reassembly, performances and some very special post-show flying.
The overall Air Show Coordinator for Pensacola is Stephanie Oram. There is none better, in our book! Stephanie emailed about two months ago, asking whether we would reconsider bringing the Curtiss Pusher to the final CoNA air show. We corresponded and comiserated, citing the lack of funds to make the trip. On her end, Stephanie said she would see what she could do. On our end, VADM Brent Bennitt, now an Exec at Wyle Aerospace and our primary sponsor contact, was equally committed to having the Curtiss at KNPA. The Triad was complete when the National Naval Aviation Museum and its Foundation took up our cause with its corporate supporters. By early October, word came down that funding was available if we could manage the logistics of shipping the Curtiss. We jumped at the chance, knowing she would need to stay somewhere in Pensacola over the winter if we got her there for the show. The Museum stepped right up, offering us the chance to display inside the main hall as part of the Pioneer Aircraft venue. With so many great and serendipitous pieces of the puzzle gliding into place, we wondered if there weren’t well placed “angels” working under deep cover to make this happen. Heartfelt thanks to them all, if this is so! To follow the money only, without knowing what transpired at the “angel” levels, we do know that Wyle Aerospace kicked in a large boost to their already substantial support. The Curtiss-Wright Corporation stepped up with a tremendous contribution, allowing this all to gel. So, here we are – Wyle Aerospace assistance got us through the year of Centennial flying, with Curtiss-Wright Corporation stepping in to ensure we could close the season in style at the Grand Finale of the Centennial of Naval Aviation. The Museum gang and Stephanie Oram’s Crew added the human touch to make this the top event for CoNA fans and for the Curtiss Crew. And that’s just about how this story came to be.
The devil’s in the details, and we’re pretty sure you’d rather not spend time reading through the trials and tribulations, so we’ll stick to what is most fun – showing off the Curtiss. Breakdown and reassembly took a week, including the two day truck transit time. In the day, Curtiss advertised that his crew of four could completely disassemble or reassemble a Model D-III in 2-4 hours, including crating everything into 5 wooden boxes for train shipment. Their technique escapes me. It took four of us an hour each just inspecting each of the 130 plus drag, anti-drag, brace, flying and landing wires, for crying out loud!
By Wednesday evening, the checks were done, the logbook entries completed and the engine run-in. A quick call to Air Ops got us permission for a test hop right before official sunset, as long as we avoided the runways, as there was a constant flow of arriving air show aircraft. We opted for the last 1500 feet of runway 19, heading out over the Channel, with a turn by Ft. Pickens, past the Lighthouse and over water to Mustin Beach Officers’ Club. The test flight was completed in time to allow a couple of teaser passes along the beach for the Sponsors, Guests and Performers who were gathered at the O’ Club. Aside from the salute to our Sponsors, we were also able to run up and down the original 1910′s seawall area, where Curtiss Triads flew the first Naval Aviators. Sadly, a decade of recent hurricanes have removed the hangars and ramps. Only photographs remind us of the sea-borne orientation of our earliest aviators. The seawall is there, a few hangars remain over by Admiral’s Row, and a couple of beautifully preserved brick buildings stand as steadfast reminders of those glorious early times. And here we are, the Curtiss and I, puttering past at 50 feet, offshore, watching the Brown Pelicans who were watching us. On Mustin Beach, the gang waves back as we glide around just for them.
The test flight portion was something we all were interested in. Would she fly as she did before we took most of her apart? Any noticeable trim or rigging changes? Anything we missed with our 5 pairs of eyes going over and over each section? Happily, the trim didn’t change. She doesn’t fly any differently, still makes you work to keep the blue side up, but there were no heavy wings or crooked tendancies to overcome. Since there were no extra pieces laying around after the reassembly, we were fairly confident all was well. Nothing fell off during the 15 minute flight. Label this one a success! Having flown the shore where no Curtiss Pusher has flown since 1912 made for a nice bonus, too!
The Show included a Thursday practice day, but winds never dropped below 15 knots, so we left the Curtiss inside its Transient Line Hangar. The 0700 briefings were eye-opening. Air Boss, Wayne Boggs (yes, his brother is Wade) was correct – they were definitely stuffing 15 pounds into a 5 pound bag. The shows prior to this one have averaged about 4 hours. This proved to be a 7 hour ballet of planes and bombs and fireworks and after-burning jet-trucks and gliders and on and on. Made for tremendous excitement and a huge coordination nightmare. Proudly, I can report that the professionals who performed for the crowds did so well that no cues were missed, no timing marks fudged and no hiccups made. All the drama and angst of getting the production safely completed was cloaked from view. The audience was left to gasp and cheer, enthralled at the magic show these pros unfolded before their eyes. Seven hours each day, for three days and before over 100,000 fans – without a single incident. There might have been a timing eror of a second or two or a spectacular surprise, but the best air show announcer in the world was on the mic, flowing everything smoothly back into place. That gentleman was none other than Rob Reiner. Listen for his voice at your next air show and you’re certain to agree he is outstanding! At briefing Day One, the FAA lady came down pretty sternly on us all, leaving no doubt there would be no room for shenanigans. By briefing Day Three, the FAA safety brief was almost a joyous affair to behold. Someone even laughed, once.
There was thunder, there was fire and there was light (Friday’s night air show), all to celebrate the end of the Centennial Year. PT Barnum would have run out of superlatives, announcing this three day spectacular. And, right there with the roar and thunder, the little Curtiss Pusher, strutting its stuff as the slowest and most unusual airplane these crowds had ever seen. Our contribution was in two parts, an early event with two Stearmans, showing off the trainers flown by early Naval Aviators, flying circuits along the 500 foot crowd line, two Stearman passes to our one, for 15 minutes. We were at about 200 feet, they flew above at 300. Once that profile was completed, we’d land and await the afternoon’s “Legacy Formation Flight”, our last daily mission.
The Legacy Flight featured the leader, in the Curtiss Helldiver, with the F4U Corsair and F/A-18 Rhino off each wing. The flight of three made several passes down the show line. The Curtiss Pusher was pre-positioned at the far end of the runway, running and ready. The plan called for the final legacy pass to fly a long straight-in at 300 feet with the Curtiss Pusher launching on cue, flying down the runway at 150 feet, and all four planes passing the show center simultaneously, before going our separate ways for landing. Right up front, I’ll admit that never happened – not even close! On day one, the “GO” call from the experts put the Curtiss well past the crowd before the three-ship caught up. The formation final was far too long and the call was premature. The Curtiss and Mark Holliday sped past before the lumbering herd could catch us. So, Andrew and I decided that we would do our own launch timing on day two, as we’d had plenty of practice with this stuff at other shows. Didn’t work this time, either. The three-ship was working a tailwind that day and turned well inside our “GO” window, so that by the time we started rolling, they were on top of us off a very short straight away. Didn’t matter, either way, because Rob Reiner, the announcer, glibly talked his way through our gaffs as if we had executed perfectly. It’s not how we did, but how Rob told the crowd that we did, that resulted in a great performance!
Before during and after the actual flying, the entire Curtiss Crew was kept hopping. This time, we were very fortunate to have a Wyle Aerospace Team manning the Curtiss booth and assisting with all the details of a well run presentation. Curtiss Crew, Tom and Pat Lavery, manned the booth with Wyle volunteers, Elizabeth and Lynn and Ron and Roger (and their families) – all dressed in 1910′s costume or barnstormers’ outfits. They spent their 7 hours on duty at the booth, fielding questions about the Curtiss Pusher and its role in the beginning of Naval Aviation. We had great visual displays available until the afternoon, when the Curtiss act finished and we were able to position plane with people to close the show. By 6 PM, we called it a day, broke camp, parked the Curtiss and headed out for dinner, pretty much as a Team – Wyle and Curtiss Crews together. Seville Quarter for the final dinner, and a chance to see watering holes every new student Naval Aviator absolutely had to frequent. The buildings and businesses from my 40 years past still remain, but it was much quieter now than then, it seems. Yet, hanging with the wonderful and talented Wyle Team and the semi-lunatics of the Curtiss Crew was its own reward. We spent an evening looking back at the last year and 15 air shows and amazing at what we’d accomplished. Gotta admit – never thought we’d pull this one off, but we did – and we did it with more than a little panache and adventure! Thanks all go to the volunteers who made this happen!
Attached are a few initial photos of the Pensacola flying. There is another story lurking about the special Sunday flying Andrew King and I did. The Curtiss, on that Sunday, did things that will probably never happen again. That adventure will follow, too, so stay tuned.