By Neil Taylor
(Editor’s note: With Jack Johnson’s recent donation of his rare Curtiss JN-4 to the museum, we wanted to provide some background about the importance of these aircraft to the early years of aviation. For more on the donation, you can check out the two stories linked at the bottom of the page.)
The Curtiss JN-4 was one of the most popular aircraft in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Designed by Englishman Benjamin Thomas, formerly with the Sopwith Aviation Company, it was manufactured by the Curtiss Aeroplane Co. of Hammondsport, New York. The JN built upon the previous Curtiss Model J and Model N series of trainers that had developed before the First World War.
The name “Jenny” came from the JN designation and is associated with the American (Curtiss Aeroplane Co.) variants of this aircraft. It was originally developed as a training aircraft in response to a U.S. Army competition seeking a two-seater biplane (student in front, instructor behind) with dual controls. The JN-4 model first appeared in 1916 and sported a 90 hp Curtiss OX-5 water cooled V8 engine. By 1918 a larger 150 hp Hispano-Suiza engine was installed to provide more power.
The JN-4 Jenny proved very popular and formed the core of the U.S. Army’s air training program. By the end of the First World War, Jennies had been used to train 95% of all American airmen who flew during the war.
The Royal Flying Corps was also in need of a trainer and contracted with Curtiss to produce a variant of the Jenny called the JN-4 (Canadian) or “Canuck”. This aircraft was manufactured by Canadian Aeroplanes Ltd. of Toronto under license from the Curtiss Aeroplane Co. The Canuck differed in a number of ways from the standard JN-4 Jenny: it had a lighter airframe, ailerons on both wings, a bigger and more rounded rudder, and a joy stick instead of a control wheel for piloting the aircraft. Its tail units were primarily of metal construction in place of the wood construction in the Jenny.
The Royal Flying Corps used the JN-4 Canuck at its training fields in both Canada and the United States. The U.S. Army also acquired a few Canucks but claimed they were more susceptible to accidents due to their lighter airframe.
After the First World War, both the U.S. Army and the Royal Air Force no longer needed so many training aircraft and thousands of Jennies and Canucks were declared surplus. JN-4s, many still in their crates, could be purchased for as little as $50. Airmen who had fought in the war and had every intention of continuing to fly in civilian life snapped up these cheap, dependable aircraft and used them for barnstorming at fairs, hauling freight and even carrying passengers.
The American Jenny was flown by many aviation greats: both Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart learned to fly on JN-4s. Ormer Locklear, considered by many to be aviation’s foremost stunt man used a JN-4 until he was tragically killed while performing a dangerous, night-time spin.
Militarily, the JN-4 Jenny was used in the first successful dive-bombing mission in 1919 when a U.S. Marine Corps JN-4 attacked insurgents during the United States’ occupation of Haiti.
In Canada, the JN-4 Canuck was also widely sought after by ex-servicemen and aspiring pilots. Captain Brian Peck and Corporal F. W. Mathers undertook Canada’s first airmail flight in a Canuck, delivering 100 letters from Montreal to Toronto (Leaside) on June 23, 1918.
During the war Edmontonians raised money to purchase a JN-4 Canuck to train Royal Flying Corps pilots. After the war it was purchased by James Carruthers, the developer of Glenora, and donated to the City of Edmonton. Local Edmontonian and war pilot, Wop May, along with his brother Court, leased this aircraft for $25/month to start Canada’s first registered aircraft company “May Airplanes Ltd.” Wop used the Canuck for various stunts such as dropping a baseball on Diamond Park to start the 1919 baseball season and flying under the High Level Bridge.
Wop May and another First World War pilot, Fred McCall of Calgary, purchased two JN-4 Jennies from the U.S. Army Air Service in 1919 for business purposes. Fred proceeded to crash his Jenny on the merry-go-round at the Calgary Exhibition and then bought Wop’s Jenny as a replacement. Wop continued to fly his JN-4 Canuck until he closed his aircraft company in 1924. Today this Canuck hangs in the reception hall of the new Royal Alberta Museum in downtown Edmonton.
Two other Canadian notables accomplished significant firsts while flying JN-4 Canucks: Ernest Hoy was the first person to fly over the Canadian Rockies in 1919, and Eileen M. Vollick was the first woman to earn a pilot’s license in Canada in 1928.
It is estimated that 8,168 Jennies were built by Curtiss and its licensed manufacturers including 1,260 JN-4 Canucks constructed by Canadian Aeroplanes Ltd. To this day, it remains one of the true classic aircraft of the early days of aviation.