In Birdmen, Lawrence Goldstone describes how Glenn Curtiss diversified operations and courted a variety of vendors to deliver specialized engines and airplanes. Most notable amongst these were the JN series of airplanes built to fulfill an army request that both the engine and the propeller be at the front of the plane. Up until then crashes dislocated a rear-placed engine that would then roll forward and crush the pilot. The JN series, popularly known as the Jenny, went through a series of iterations with engine and other structural changes but the JN-4, with a Curtiss engine, was by far the most popular. World War I put production into overdrive with the Army, Navy and the Canadian armed forces all signing contracts for the plane.
During the war, the Jenny was used primarily as a trainer 95% of pilots trained on the Jenny and, because her landing ability was tricky, it was said that if you could fly a Jenny, you could fly anything at all! The plane was occasionally used to carry cargo, and was also used for aerial ambulances. Despite being built for the war, the Jenny wasn't actually deployed but, instead, was used on and around home bases.
The Jenny is considered to have contributed significantly to aviation, not because of its role during the war years, but because of its place after the war. Pilots returning home wanted to take up commercial aviation in some way and the surplus of Jennys lying unused in airfields around the country provided a perfect opportunity. For as little as $4,000 (today's worth) one could buy a working Jenny. This created a wild era of barnstorming (feats of flying) for much of the 1920s, with pilots attempting bolder and crazier stunts. The famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh, used a Jenny to make his historic flight.
It has been argued that the Jenny was responsible for the public's embrace of aviation and for future rules and regulations that allowed the industry to grow "wings" as it were. She flew with the first cargo load of U.S. airmail in 1918. In 1927, she retired from active military service and that same year the U.S. postal service issued a commemorative stamp in her honor, but mistakenly printed the image upside down. It is considered the most famous error in American philately and is a prized collector's item. A mint-condition specimen, of which there are only about 100, went for just under a million dollars. One of these stamps is a part of the collections of the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum even if, much to the chagrin of philately enthusiasts, the institution only displays it occasionally. The USPS have recently issued an inverted Jenny souvenir sheet of six stamps - $2 each.
Two Jennys in flight, photo courtesy of San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives.
Lillian Boyer doing the Breakway, photographer unknown.
1918 U.S. Air Mail $.24 stamp printing error, "Inverted Jenny" sheet position 57. This stamp sold at auction in 2007 by Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries for $977,500.00, uploaded by DigitalImageServices.com
This article was originally published in May 2014, and has been updated for the
April 2015 paperback release.
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