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.
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.
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.