Want to soar through aviation history on a World War I-era plane? Lonely Planet meets Dorian Walker, the aviation enthusiast who built a Curtiss Jenny biplane from scratch.
The Curtiss Jenny flies. It has wings, a pilot and needs a strip of land to get moving. Compared to today’s Boeing or Airbus jets, that’s pretty much where the similarities end.
Yet if it wasn’t for this pioneering plane the history of aviation would be very different. This summer, when you’re hopping on a plane as easily as you would a bus, spare a thought for the planes that started the journey.
It’s not only aviation enthusiasts taking note that a Curtiss Jenny has been rebuilt, from scratch, at a Kentucky airfield. Onlookers eager for a whiff of travel nostalgia, or hoping to catch some aerial stunts, will be craning their necks at this summer's Centennial Tour, which is sponsored by Lonely Planet.
You might be wondering what’s so special about this plane. The Curtiss JN-4, to name it properly, was a biplane from the earliest days of flying. Built principally to train aviators for World War I - 95% of all North American pilots in that conflict first flew a Jenny - it was also the first plane to operate the US Postal Service. More than that, it was the first plane many Americans saw, and was used in many semi-mythical ‘barnstorming’ aerial performances of the 1920s that captured the imagination of the American public. And if you’ve seen an upside-down plane on America’s most famous stamp then you’ve already spotted a Jenny.
These planes are best appreciated in the air so it’s something to celebrate that a Jenny is flying again in 2014. For this we have to thank Dorian Walker, a film-maker and flying buff, who resurrected the dream of building a biplane in the 21st century.
Walker, who is based in Bowling Green, Kentucky, was fascinated by the challenge of ‘taking an iconic symbol of aviation and bringing a new one to life’. Walker saw the potential for a cracking film telling this story - airing on PBS this fall - but it also spoke to his passion for problem solving that was piqued when studying under R Buckminster Fuller, the design guru who popularised the geodesic dome.
How would Walker describe building an ancient plane from scratch? ‘Exciting, a challenge, head-scratching, a bit of all those things!’ he smiles. As much as anything, this is about craftsmanship. ‘The Jenny is an all-wooden plane. Many parts, including the wings and covering, are hand-stitched. The contrast with the hi-tech nature of modern planes is incredible. A plane is built and constructed by man and there is a very meaningful connection to simplicity in this project.’
Building the plane using original plans - more than 600 of them - was a labour of love. Every fitting had to be manufactured from scratch. The wooden frame is made from ash, and other parts are similarly lo-fi. But she flies nonetheless, and joins seven other Jennys nationwide still running.
Flying a plane like this - the N38262 to give this model its correct identifier - is almost an alien experience from a modern plane. For starters, once you’ve started there’s no turning back - the Jenny has no brakes.
‘Rumbling is a pretty good description as you move down a grass runway of 1000 feet or so,’ says Walker. Then up it goes, lifted by its large wingspan, which for Walker inspired ‘one of the great feelings of my life.’ Landing without brakes is just as eventful.
As the main test pilot, Dorian Walker had the chance to experience something of the thrill of the barnstorming era. ‘I flew above American lakes, fields, hills and rivers,’ he says. ‘At one point we went through a rainstorm. The Jenny flies lower to the ground than modern planes, and you could feel the spirit of early pilots, and people like Charles Lindbergh who learnt their craft in this plane.’
Assured of a place in aviation history, the N38262 is, after a busy summer, heading for a permanent home at Florida Air Museum (sun-n-fun.org). But like all things built to move, the Jenny is best seen in the air. If you get the chance to see it this summer, do - you can find out more at friendsofjenny.org/events.html.