Curtiss JN-4 Phoebe Omlie

The Curtiss JN-4 is a WWI biplane training aircraft. The JN, often called the Jenny, is one of the most recognizable planes of the war. Many credit the Curtiss JN with the advancement of civil aviation due to their popularity after the WWI.

Concept & Design

In the 1910s, the US Army was facing difficulties with aircraft safety. The rear engine military planes were too dangerous. In the event of a crash, the engine would move forward – crushing the pilot. A front engine design was the answer.

Glenn Curtiss had a concept, but needed help refining the layout. The designer B. Douglas Thomas had worked on past aircraft projects with Avro and Sopwith Aviation Company. They collaborated to create the JN. The Curtiss JN-1 included the best features of the Curtiss Model J and Model N military aircraft. The maximum speed was 75 mph, although they were typically operated at 60 mph for cruising. Endurance topped out at two hours and ten minutes.

Curtiss JN-4

Curtiss JN Evolution

Many argue that the next of the line, the JN-2, hadn’t been properly built for flying. The bulk and weight of the aircraft prohibited altitude climb. Eight JN-2s were delivered to the military. The pilots didn’t feel that the aircraft was safe. A fatal crash during training amplified concerns. They talked over the issues with the captain. Major fears were instability, rudder sensitivity, and lack of power. Another crash a few months later seemed to validate reservations, and the remaining JN-2s were grounded.

Glen Curtiss created the JN-3 to resolve many of the problems that plagued the previous aircraft. Major improvements included a modified wing, increased tail surface, and better engine. The grounded JN-2 were updated with these enhancements. The pilots noted that the JN-3 was a definite improvement, but still had a long way to go for acceptable power and ability to climb. The updated aircraft was sent to the Southwest to support troops that were trying to capture a group of bandits. Eleven total aircraft were sent and one aviation mechanic. The aircraft had multiple issues and proved to unable to maneuver over the mountains in the region.

Curtiss JN-4D

New and improved, the Curtiss JN-4D featured increased visibility from the lower wing cut outs. The aileron removal from the lower wing strengthened stability. Although there were many variants of the JN-4, the majority had no armament. Some were even modified to carry stretchers, becoming one of the first aerial ambulances.

The Jenny line continued through the JN-6. The JN-4 and JN-6 had weaponized variants. The JN-4HB and JN-6BH had modifications for bomber training. The JN-4HG and JN-6HG featured gunnery. A communications, observation, and pursuit fighter variant were also created. Reports indicate that 95% of pilot trainees learned to fly on the Curtiss JN-4.

Civil Aviation

Curtiss JN-4D 1918After the war, the military stated that they had a surplus of planes, estimates are about 6,000. Many of the planes had never been flown, some hadn’t even been assembled. Aviation enthusiasts snapped up the JN-4s quickly. As regulation hadn’t caught up to technology, there were few regulations for flight safety. People were able to experiment with stunts due to the relative stability and leisurely speed of the Jenny. Crowds would come to watch the theatrics, called barnstorming.

The Curtiss JN-4 wasn’t just about entertainment, people started considering practical applications. The biggest impact may have been on mail delivery. Pilots began transporting mail, drastically cutting down delivery time. The Jenny was so closely thought of with air mail that it was featured on the 24¢ stamp in 1918. The stamps have an interesting history. One sheet of the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny stamps were printed showing the aircraft inverted. It is one of the most legendary mistakes on a US stamp. The sheet sold for $1,175,000 USD in a 2016 auction.

The prevalence of aircraft drew attention to another factor that contributed to the growth of aviation, air traffic management. The demonstrated need for an airport system led to the creation of airports across the US.

By the late 1920’s, the government began formalizing aviation regulations. Many of the Jenny aircraft could not meet airworthiness and safety requirements. In 1930, most of the JN-4 aircraft became illegal to fly. This, coupled with the introduction of more efficient aircraft, led to the decreased prominence of the Jenny.

JN-4 Jenny Today

There are multiple aviation museums across the US that display the JN-4. In Hammondsport, NY visitors can see a JN-4D along with other early aircraft at the Glenn H Curtiss Museum. There are a few that are still airworthy, the most notable from Friends of Jenny LLC in Bowling Green, Kentucky. You can see their restored Jenny at public events throughout the touring season in the Midwest.Technological advancements, international events, and travel have all impacted the evolution of flight. See our picks for notable aircraft