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Saving Jenny

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The Curtiss JN-4D Jenny on display in the America by Air exhibition. The aircraft was on display at the Mall Museum from November 17, 2007, until it was removed last week. Photo by Eric Long, Smithsonian, National Air and Space Museum.

The Curtiss JN-4D Jenny is arguably one of the most famous aircraft designs in aviation history, at least U.S. aviation history.  Like the DC-3, the Piper Cub, the P-51 Mustang, the Boeing 707, and the F-4 Phantom, to name just a few, the Jenny remains a classic and an all-time favorite of anyone with an interest in airplanes.  Associated with one of the great figures of early aviation, Glenn H. Curtiss, and playing key roles as a trainer, an airmail plane, and a barnstorming aircraft in the late ‘teens and 1920s, the Jenny is a signature aircraft of the period when the airplane was evolving from a new invention to a viable technology that was beginning to have great influence in broad ways.  From the perspective of historical significance to the “nuts and bolts,” ya gotta just love the Jenny.

One of my first experiences that hooked me on early aviation was seeing an original Jenny fly back in 1972 at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome.  As the low-powered, frail biplane winged its way gently and slowly around the field, I imagined what it must have been like to learn to fly when wings were new.  Many years later, I had the good fortune to become the curator of the early aircraft collections at the National Air and Space Museum.  Among those aircraft is one of the best remaining examples of a Curtiss Jenny.  The Smithsonian acquired its Jenny in 1918, only days after the Armistice ending World War I.  The airplane was re-covered in the 1920s, and remains completely original from that time.  The Museum’s Jenny is one of the true jewels of the collection.  It has a particular place of pride in my curatorial responsibilities, and the whole museum staff has a great soft spot in our hearts for our Jenny.  When the opportunity to put it on display in the Mall museum presented itself with the building of the new commercial aviation exhibition, America by Air, a few years ago, I was delighted to make it available to the curator of the new gallery.  When the exhibition opened in 2007, it was a great success and the Jenny looked fabulous on its perch, drawing visitors toward America by Air.  A museum favorite finally was center stage for all to enjoy.

Damage to Curtiss JN-4D Jenny tail fabric. Photo by Dane Penland, Smithsonian, National Air and Space Museum.

Sadly, last week, our beautiful Curtiss Jenny had to be removed from America by Air.  Being completely original with fabric more than 80 years old, the Jenny is one of the most fragile aircraft in the Museum’s collection.  Even a gentle bump can puncture or split the fabric covering.  Mounted on stands displaying it out of arm’s reach from the floor of the gallery, we thought our treasured Jenny would be safe and sound.  What we didn’t anticipate was the “attack” from the air, from the second floor balcony above.  The vast majority of our visitors could not be more well behaved, and treat our collections and displays with the reverence they deserve.  But with several million visitors a year passing through our exhibits, you can’t avoid a few bad sorts with destructive tendencies.  It seems this tiny percentage of disrespectful souls had taken to using the Jenny for target practice with everything from coins to hard candy.  As a result, the airplane now has more than a dozen holes in it from objects dropped or thrown from above.  The situation had gotten bad enough that the aircraft had to be removed from display.  We were facing a “death by a thousand cuts” situation.  It pains me to have to take such an historic aircraft off display, and deny our visitors to America by Air the chance to see this beautiful example of this true classic.  But as the old saying goes, sometimes a few ruin it for the majority.  To preserve the Jenny, it had to be taken out of harm’s way.  It will be relocated to the Udvar-Hazy Center and placed in a more secure setting.  So visitors will still be able to see it.  Just no longer in the rich context and attractive setting of the America by Air gallery.

Curtiss JN-4D Jenny at Udvar-Hazy Center awaiting reassembly for display. Photo by Dane Penland, Smithsonian, National Air and Space Museum.

Peter L. Jakab is the National Air and Space Museum’s Associate Director for Collections and Curatorial Affairs, and Curator of the Early Flight and World War I Aircraft collections.

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12 thoughts on “Saving Jenny

  1. This is so distressing! Can you tell us how long it will take to repair the Jenny? Also, are there any other artifacts in the Museum that have been damaged by visitors?

  2. OMG, how could someone pruposely destroy a majestic aircraft like Jenny? This is so sad and goes to show – there’s ALWAYS ONE in every group/community. Hopefully she’s repaired quickly and back on display. :)

  3. I don’t know about longer term plans for restoration, but the Jenny is now on the floor at the Udvar-Hazy Center safe from all but the most determined attacks. No one will be able to go to a higher floor to drop anything on it. Even the staff and docents are enjoined not to enter the area where it is presently located because of its fragility.

    Still, it not fully reassembled as the wings are not mounted. I don’t know when it will be setup for more effective display but it appears the NASM is moving in the right direction to protect it for long-term preservation and display.

  4. Has there been any attempt to identify who may have done this? Unbelievable, what next? Graffiti on the Lincoln Memorial?
    Sad…

  5. Never would have happened if she had been properly armed!
    A couple of Marlins would have done the job.
    Some people’s kids just don’t have any respect.
    Keep in mind that this is a National Trasure/International Treasure and should be treated accordingly.
    Just my opinion as I find it very frustrating and worse than discourteous.

  6. Sadly, I can’t say I’m surprised. When I visited the NASM downtown in the summer of ’08, I was appalled to see literally dozens of visitors rubbing their hands all over the original WWII paint on the B-26 Marauder “Flak Bait.” There are several spots where it has been rubbed down to bare metal.

    I want to take this opportunity to ask the museum staff to PLEASE put that aircraft completely behind glass, before the original paint is gone forever (or some idiot decides to etch their initials into the metal!) I understand the plan is to eventually reassemble the aircraft and display it as-is at Udvar-Hazy. The sooner this happens the better.

  7. What disturbs me is other people, around these “idiots”, must have seen what was happening & did nothing about it. All it would have taken was to report them to someone. I have seen people attack aircraft at airshows. They were rudely interrupted & swiftly removed from the scene. It bothers me why these people see a need to do such acts & are very upset when confronted.

  8. Last week I was at the museum with my wife, daughter, and her husband. I was a little disturbed to see kids throwing French fries off the upper deck at kids below. Their parents were no where in sight, and I made a comment to them to stop. I was not able to find anyone around to report this but apparently my comment to drop them off the second floor had a much better effect. The folks there do a great job preserving world aviation history, and it is a shame that there are some who show so little respect for these folks hard work and do not understand the importance of these aircraft. I hope this does not develop into a trend that is going to deprive us of seeing these aircraft in the future. One of my major reasons for visiting that day was to see my old Huey from Vietnam on display there. I only wish I could have crossed that line to touch her again, but I fully respect the need to keep people from doing that. It was a great day, and my thanks to the folks who work there to keep these birds on display.

  9. It is a misfortune that your Jenny was damaged but actually it’s quite amazing that a fragile old tube and rag plane like your Jenny has survived this long without a mishap. I have a tube and rag ultralight and after building her stuck a screw driver through the side by accident while working on a wing strut. When you re skin your Jenny do you use original type materials or modern? I wish I could have been around when these were available after WW1 to purchase for a song. What a golden age this Jenny represents.
    Thanks for keeping our aviation heritage in good shape.

  10. Sadly, I can’t say I’m surprised. When I visited the NASM downtown in the summer of ’08, I was appalled to see literally dozens of visitors rubbing their hands all over the original WWII paint on the B-26 Marauder “Flak Bait.” There are several spots where it has been rubbed down to bare metal.

    I want to take this opportunity to ask the museum staff to PLEASE put that aircraft completely behind glass, before the original paint is gone forever (or some idiot decides to etch their initials into the metal!) I understand the plan is to eventually reassemble the aircraft and display it as-is at Udvar-Hazy. The sooner this happens the better.

  11. Wish I could have seen who did this; they would have had their skin roughed up. It’s so sad that people have this much disrespect for national treasures. I did notice the clear plastic cover over the leading edge of the wing on the Northrop Gamma – so idiots cant touch it. It’s good that the museum takes these precautionary measures. About the Jenny – I was at the museum downtown last week and was wondering why it wasn’t on display their – now I know why. I wish it were back in the America by Air gallery. The museum could hang it where the Extra aerobatic plane is. I was wondering why the Extra is there in the first place; seems out of place. The Jenny could be suspended there and be out of reach of disrespectful visitors.

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