The Curtiss Story Part 3: First World War Flying Boats

Glenn Curtiss had made great advances in aviation by the 1910’s despite countless legal battles with the Wright Brothers over his Pusher designs. His experimental flying boats had led to plenty of industry recognition and it wasn’t long before the navy took an interest in these designs. The First World War would see the flying boat side of the business grow.


A reminder of Glenn Curtiss’ early flying boat designs. – San Diego Air and Space Museum.

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Another reminder of Curtiss’ early flying boat designs – the A-1 Triad, shown here by an OX-5 powered replica example owned by the Glenn H.Curtiss Museum. – Photo coutest of the Glenn H.Curtiss Museum, Hammondsport, NY.

The first boats that the Navy took delivery of the were given the designation “Type C”. These models were not identical and started as a very basic experimental airframe, by the end the design was at a near production standard. In 1913 these first Navy boats were redesigned AB type codes. The AB-3 became the first US military aircraft to see action after being transported down to Vera Cruz in Mexico where it carried out reconnaissance missions surveying the surrounding ports for mines in 1914.


AB-3 being positioned ready for flight. – San Diego Air and Space Museum.

The basis for most of these Curtiss designs early in the war was the model F. One such example was the 1914 model which was a biplane of equal span wings, a pusher engine and a central hull. The design of this model was still not standardised and there were many personalised civilian versions constructed with various modifications. An example of these special designs was the McCormick boat which was a five seat variant with a tractor engine, making for quite a different profile from a traditional Curtiss design.


Model F – San Diego Air and Space Museum

There were countless other variations built for personal use, the army and navy in the years leading up to World War One, far too many to go into in this post. They all played an important part in honing the design skills needed to make viable war machines, something that would play a big part in Curtiss’ impending success.

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A replica of the model E flying boat in flight. – Photo courtesy of the Glenn H.Curtiss Museum, Hammondsport, NY.

The Curtiss flying boats had built themselves a reputation over in Europe during these formative years so it was no surprise that when war broke out the Royal Navy ordered a number of “America” flying boats, otherwise known as the model H, a twin engined Bi-plane flying boat. This dramatic increase in orders from across the Atlantic led to massive expansions at the Buffalo factory, this expansion was so huge that by 1917 the Curtiss plant was the largest aircraft factory in the world. These improvements also led to the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Companies merging into one Company. As a result of the ongoing Curtiss-Wright legal battles the British government had to  pay $75,000 to Wright and $20,000 to Curtiss in order to secure these aircraft. An airworthy replica of the America is kept at the Glenn Curtiss museum in New York State – A video of the aircraft flying can be found here along with the photos included in this post.


Curtiss America/Model H – San Diego Air and Space Museum.

The US government offered up 1 million dollars to Curtiss and Wright to purchase the patents to allow aircraft production to continue unhindered to support the war effort. Neither company actually put this money to personal use and it was pooled together to form the Manufacturer’s Aircraft association which firms had to be a member of in order to use patented designs. Each member paid a membership which covered the royalties for the designs.

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A flying replica of the H model America. – Photo courtesy of the Glenn H.Curtiss Museum, Hammondsport, NY


The Model H flying boat was a stalwart of the Curtiss production line throughout the Great War going through a huge number of variations. The early models of this family were found to have a few deficiencies in terms of the hull design. These were modified by Lt. Porte in late 1915, who in fact built new hulls and attached Curtiss wings and auxiliaries to them. This led to Curtiss including the modifications themselves, resulting in the H-4, powered by a 90hp Curtiss OX. 62 H-4s were built.

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The Glenn Curtiss museum’s America replica in the air, an impressive sight. – Photo by Ralph Guasp.

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…and another of the beautiful design. – Photo by Ralph Guasp.

The model H saw further development as the war moved along including the step up to a twin engined pusher design from the H-8 onwards. In 1916 as America’s entry to the war in Europe drew nearer, Curtiss produced an upgraded and enlarged mode H flying boat, known as the H-12. Like other later models this aircraft was powered by two engines, initially two 160hp Curtiss V-X-X , though in British serve more powerful Rolls-Royce Eagles Is (275hp) were used. This engine change came after the British forces found the aircraft to be underpowered. These were later replaced by Eagle VIIIs (375hp) given even more power to this bigger design. The Royal Navy used these machines for anti-submarine and anti-zeppelin work.


The impressive H-12 on a take-off run. – San Diego Air and Space Museum.

The US entry to the war brought more money into the Navy for aircraft and they were able to place an order for 20 H-12s in early 1917. On delivery these machines had two 200hp Curtiss V-2-3 engines before being replaced by Liberty engines. The H-12 had a relatively long service life with the US Navy, remaining in service until July 1920.


H-16. – San Diego Air and Space Museum.

The final H model came in the shape of the H-16 and was to be produced in the largest numbers of any twin engined Curtiss flying boat. Though a number of these aircraft were delivered to Europe before the war ended, they were not delivered within enough time to make any impression before the end of the conflict.  The ’16 benefitted from the Liberty 360hp engine becoming available before the types first flight, postwar versions of this type were powered by 400hp Liberty engines and a number were converted for passenger use.


The NC-4 is prepared for a flight. – San Diego Air and Space Museum.

Another Flying Boat that shouldn’t go unmentioned from the war years is that of the NC or “Nancy ” design. This huge, 3 engined design was developed in 1918, this was to fulfill the US Navy’s need for an aircraft that would be capable of long ocean flights and with the ambitious request of transatlantic flight. The prototype NC-1 was powered by three V12 Liberty engines each giving 400HP though it was later decided in testing that a fourth engine should be added, which duly was in a pusher position. This ambitious project had a max speed of 90mph and a range of around 1500 miles.

The prototype made its first flight on the 4th October, while its second would take place after the armistice on the 25th November 1918. That second flight set a new world record but having 51 people on board, a clear indication of the potential of this design. Four NC’s were made initially, with NC-2 being damaged in test flying. The other aircraft were selected to make an attempt at the first ever transatlantic flight. Only NC-1 completed the journey, with NC-1 being damaged in bad weather near the Azores and NC-3 being forced to land during the crossing over 200 miles away from the Azores, though the crew did successfully sail the aircraft back to land. After this historic achievement the Navy had a further 6 examples built and operated them until 1921.


A dramatic image of the NC-4. – San Diego Air and Space Museum.

This post has been a very brief look at an incredible period of time for the Curtiss Aeroplane Company. While the rest of the US aircraft manufacturers had no success in exporting or even participating in the war in Europe, Curtiss managed to supply a huge number of aircraft to the Royal Navy and strengthen respect that had already been building for the firm. This would help build their reputation in the United States as the 20s began and ultimately bring them success as the Second World War approached.

One other famous design, perhaps the most memorable american design of the First World War, also brought great success for Curtiss at home in the form of the “Jenny”. This will be the subject of part 4 of this series.

Many thanks are offered to the helpful team at the Glenn H.Curtiss Museum in New York state who kindly allowed me to use the photos above of the modern replicas, as well as the header image of the original America. Check out their impressive collection here.

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