The Curtiss JN “Jenny” is one of the most famous American aircraft ever produced – a mainstay of 1920’s Airmail and Barnstorming – and it was a product of Buffalo. One hundred years ago this year, in 1916, the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company opened a new plant at 2050 Elmwood Avenue to build the Jenny. World War I was raging in Europe and Curtiss had just introduced its new JN trainer in 1915 when orders began pouring in. Originally, Curtiss set up shop in the old Taylor Signal Company building on Elmwood (now the Foundry Hotel) to produce engines. Before the year was out, Curtiss was manufacturing Jennys in the new plant, which soon became known as the largest aircraft factory in the world.
A rugged, cloth and wood biplane with a reliable motor, the Jenny proved to be a superior trainer. It was used to train American, Canadian, British, French and Australian pilots during the war and to test the first air-to-air and air-to-ground radio communications. It was after the war when the Jenny really came into its own, helping to usher in a Golden Age of American Aviation. After the Armistice, surplus Jennys flooded the market eventually selling for as little as $50-$200, Many of these aircraft were bought by former military pilots who used them throughout the Roaring ‘20s to offer rides, fly air mail and “Barnstorm.” Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart both soloed in Jennys while thousands of people had their first flight in a Jenny. By 1927, increasing government regulation of airworthiness, maintenance and licensing ended the “Jenny Era.” In all, over 8,000 Jenny’s were built by Curtiss and others in approximately 20 variants from 1915 until the late 1920s. Today upwards of 50 Jennys are still in existence in collections all over the world, including the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
As for the Curtiss factory on Elmwood, it passed to Bell Aircraft which manufactured thousands of P-39 Airacobra fighers there during World War II. In 1994, part of the plant was torn down to make way for the Home Depot that is still there. However, another part of that plant still survives, where the old M. Wile Company was once housed. Meanwhile, WNY’s aerospace heritage lives on at Moog, Northrop Grumman, Astronics, Servotronics, CALSPAN and other descendants of those original aviation innovators from a century ago.