Once the most common airplane in North America, the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny inspired a generation of early aviators. Now, a group of dedicated aviation enthusiasts at Poplar Grove Airport is building one – and they’re doing it from scratch. Join Jon McGinty as he dives into the details.
The construction of an airplane – any airplane – is a complex and difficult procedure, so most modern amateur builders purchase a kit, complete with prefabricated parts and detailed instructions, to build a safe, reliable and sturdy vehicle for travel and fun. But what if you wanted to create a living piece of history from more than 100 years ago? That’s the task a group at Poplar Grove Airport in Boone County has set for itself.
The endeavor began with a suggestion from Don Perry, restoration project coordinator at the Vintage Wings & Wheels Museum at the airport. Perry is a retired sheet metal worker from Local #73 in Chicago, who holds a Masters and PhD in vocational education. He’s also a lifelong pilot, a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), and has restored five planes to flying condition in the past 50 years.
“One of the missions of the EAA is to teach people the hand skills they need to build an airplane,” says Perry. “And the mission of the museum is to educate the public about the history of aviation and automobiles, from 1903 to 1938. The 1918 Jenny is a perfect fit.”
Perry submitted a budget proposal to the museum board and invited another pilot who had restored a Jenny in Kentucky to present his story to them as well. A capital campaign soon included funding for the Jenny project and Perry volunteered to spearhead the construction.
“I committed to working three days a week for the next five years,” says Perry, “but it has become four days a week now. We expect to finish the airplane by September 2020.”
The construction takes place in a multi-use hangar on the museum campus, a building whose creation was itself a collaboration between the local EAA chapter 1414 and the museum in 2012. The restoration hangar also is used by the Youth Exploring Aviation (YEA) group, which is restoring a 1941 Aeronca Chief to flying condition. (See related story)
Perry started preparations for the Jenny project in September of 2016 by adding lights and fans to the hangar, seeking and assembling almost 1,300 original blueprints and photos from various sources, and installing software on a new computer to store them all. He also put out a call for local volunteers and was encouraged by the response.
“There were many people interested in working on the Jenny, and we now have about six to eight full-time [four days a week] volunteers, with several others who come in when they can,” says Perry. “We all have different expertise and we have come together nicely. We made our first part in February of 2017.”
Most of the volunteers are pilots, many store their planes at Poplar Grove airport, and some even live in the nearby flying community subdivision, Bel Air Estates. All are members of EAA Chapter 1414, or the museum, or both. One of the principal volunteers who got the whole project going, Frank Herdzina, died in April.
“He helped spearhead the fundraising to construct the museum’s restoration hangar, where the EAA leases one half for their organization,” says Judi Zangs, museum executive director. “Frank was a retired mechanical engineer and was in charge of the wing section of the Jenny. He built the wings in his own hangar at Bel Air in six months, which should have taken a year. When Don [Perry] found an original OX-5 engine for the Jenny, Frank donated the $12,000 needed to purchase it. He is sorely missed.”
The OX-5, a V8 hemi engine, was built in 1917 and is the only original part on the entire airplane, except for the wheels. Two volunteers, Tim Gallagher and Robin Whitt, will rebuild it in-house, saving the project group $25,000.
“Last year, we had someone from Brodhead, Wis., bring down an OX-5 mounted on a trailer for a demonstration,” says Sam Darby, retired architect and member of the museum board. “It was on display in front of the Jenny Project during the annual fly-in breakfast for the airport.
Hundreds of people were able to see it operate. That 100-year-old overhead valve engine ran more smoothly and quietly than the engine in my present automobile!”
Darby serves as the liaison between the museum board and the Jenny project.
“It’s my responsibility to stay attuned to their progress, to the wants and needs of the building team, and to present those needs to the board to secure funding,” he says. “I’m most impressed with the talents that came together to construct this airplane. When they need a component to tie everything together, they look at the old drawings and fabricate it themselves. And those blueprints were all hand-drawn before computers, by using T-squares, triangles and calculations made with slide rules.”
Steve Langdon and Brad Hanson, both retired, are responsible for construction of the fuselage of the Jenny. Langdon is an amateur woodworker and the Jenny is primarily a wooden airplane, held together by wires – 276 of them – later to be covered with a modern fabric donated to the project by the PolyFiber Company of California. That company will conduct a two-day workshop in January to teach volunteers how to apply the fabric to the frames.
“We spend about one-third of our time deciding what needs to be done and in what order,” says Langdon, “then another third figuring out what tools and processes are required, and finally a third of our time actually doing the construction.”
Volunteers, Perry included, have had to learn traditional construction techniques used 100 years ago, as well as how to apply modern tooling methods to traditional materials like wire, wood and metal.
“In the old days, they cut out one metal piece at a time,” says Perry. “Now we use a water jet to cut several pieces at once, which utilizes high-pressure water and sand. Also, I constructed the spider plate [used to mount the engine and radiator to the frame] by bending and welding, for about $100 in materials. A gentleman in Virginia wanted $7,000 to press the piece, using an original die. We’re re-inventing things like that on the entire airplane.”
The wooden parts of the Jenny are constructed with aircraft-grade spruce and ash, both of which are light but strong materials. The ash is also pliable, so it can be bent or formed to produce unique shapes.
“For one piece, we made a fixture of the curved shape we needed,” says Perry. “Then we soaked the ash for two days, steamed it for two hours, bent it over the fixture to match the curve, clamped it in place, and let it sit for two weeks. Strong but pliable!”
Since there is little existing literature on how to do these things, Perry has connected with a network of mentors worldwide who volunteer their experience building, reconstructing or flying a Jenny. He and other members of the team have also visited museums throughout the country that have Jennys on display, to examine, photograph and discuss solutions to construction problems as they arise. These visits include the EAA Airventure Museum in Oshkosh, Wis., and the Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, NY.
To make the Jenny conform as closely as possible to the original design, it will not include such “modern” components as a radio, electrical system or starter. One modification the group will make is to make the tail skid steerable, to enable the pilot to control turns while on the ground.
“Otherwise, the pilot will need a couple of guys on the ground to lift the tail for him to change direction,” says Perry.
Another possible “modernization” to be agreed upon later is the addition of brakes to the main wheels, something the museum board wants done for safety reasons.
“We haven’t yet figured out how to attach the calipers, since the undercarriage is sprung with bungee cords,” he says.
The Curtiss JN-4 Jenny was one of a series of JN biplanes built by the Curtiss Aeroplane Company during and after World War I. Curtiss commissioned the design in response to the U.S. military’s demand for a tractor-type (engine in front) airplane to serve as a trainer for the U.S. Army. By this time, pusher-type airplanes (engine behind the pilot) were believed to be unsafe in a crash, and airplanes of the era crashed frequently.
The JN series combined the best features of the J and N designs, and the new designation soon earned the nickname “Jenny.” Several variations preceded the JN-4, as Curtiss and his engineers struggled to correct stability and control problems.
JN-3s became the first U.S. plane to participate in a military action. In March, 1916, they provided aerial reconnaissance for Gen. John J. Pershing’s “punitive expedition” into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa.
“The mission was a complete disaster,” says Mike Frederiksen, curator and education coordinator at the museum. “None of the eight aircraft were able to complete the mission. After a month of service, only two of the JN-3s were still in airworthy condition.”
The JN-4 became the standard Jenny. It was a two-seat, dual-control biplane, with uneven wingspans – the top wing was longer than the bottom wing. Ailerons to control roll during turns were located on the upper wing only. As a trainer, the instructor sat in the back and yelled over the engine noise to his student in the front cockpit. The pilot always soloed from the back cockpit.
When fitted with the original OX-5 V8, 90 horsepower piston engine, the Jenny had a top speed of 75 mph, could cruise at 60 mph and land at 40. Pilots used a control stick and rudder bar to steer the airplane in the air.
“The demand for pilots and training airplanes skyrocketed with the outbreak of World War I,” says Frederiksen. “The Jenny became the first mass-produced aircraft in North America, and one of the most numerous. Two million square feet of factory floor were dedicated to its production, and almost 18,000 men and women were employed in factories to build them.”
By war’s end, almost 7,000 Jennys had been built, but none saw combat service, as they were all used as stateside trainers. The Canadians also used a version of the JN-4, called the Canuck. The Curtiss factory in Buffalo, NY, was the largest such factory in the world at the time, but five more manufacturers were needed to meet the demand.
“More than 95 percent of North American pilots during the war completed all or part of their flight training in a Jenny,” says Frederiksen. “Many famous pilots, including Elrey Jeppeson, Jimmy Dolittle, Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindberg, learned to fly at the controls of a Jenny.”
The end of the war in Europe left the U.S. government with a surplus of thousands of Jennys, which soon found their way into the civilian market at greatly reduced prices. An abundance of trained pilots from the war effort, combined with cheap airplanes, produced what later became known as the Jenny Era, from 1920 to 1926, otherwise known as the Barnstorming Era.
Barnstormers were stunt pilots (including men and women, some of them minorities) who traveled the country putting on aerial exhibitions, selling rides and flying lessons to wannabe pilots and curious civilians.
A typical “flying circus” of aviators would locate a farm willing to serve as a base (for a share of the profits), then buzz a nearby town to stir up customers. Crowds would gather at the farm and pay for rides or shows, which could include aerobatics, wing walking and other stunts. With its maze of struts and wires, a single axle between the wheels, and its slow speed, the Jenny was a great platform for wing walkers, as well as aerial transfers from plane to plane, or from a moving vehicle on the ground. The Jenny, in such a flying circus, was often the first airplane people saw in their lifetimes. Many barnstormers went on to create another career as stunt pilots for Hollywood films.
The Air Commerce Act of 1926, which regulated the licensing of planes and pilots, and established rules for flying safety, sounded the death knell of the barnstorming era. The Jenny was unable to meet the new directives and, by 1930, was illegal to operate in most parts of the U.S. There are about 40 Jennys still in existence in the U.S., mostly as static displays in museums. Those still flying have usually been extensively modified and fly under the authorization of an experimental aircraft license.
The completed Jenny project will cost an estimated $75,000, and there’s some thought of conducting another capital campaign to finance the construction of an additional hangar to house the Jenny. In the meantime, it still fits in the restoration hangar where it’s lovingly being assembled. Since it will be airworthy, plans are to fly it to various regional airshows and events, such as the annual EAA convention in Oshkosh, Wis. The pilot has yet to be determined.
“The Jenny will be a draw to both the museum and the airport,” predicts Darby. “This will not only be good for them, but for the economic development of the entire region.”
Sometime in 2020, you may look up into a blue sky scattered with puffy white clouds, hear the far-off sounds of a chugging engine and see a shiny blue and white biplane flying out of the history books and into the future.
Say “Hello” to the Jenny!
Samuel John Price
In response to an article in a local newspaper about the Jenny project, Mimi Mulford from Rockford contacted the Vintage Wings and Wheels Museum, explaining that her father, Samuel Price, had flown a Jenny as part of his flight training in the Ohio National Guard during World War I. She has since loaned several of her father’s artifacts to the museum, which are now on display. These include his flight jacket, numerous photographs and a data plate from an actual Jenny, complete with its serial number. It will be installed in the Poplar Grove Jenny when completed.
Mimi’s son, Keith Mulford, has compiled a history of his grandfather’s life based on extensive material that includes audio recordings and photographs made by Sam Price. He has presented his grandfather’s life story and involvement with the Jenny to audiences at the museum.
“Sam Price met the Jenny biplane in 1918,” says Keith. “He fell in love with flying and flew for 28 years.”
Price enlisted in the Ohio National Guard the day after World War I began and soon applied for cadet status in the aviation section of the Signal Corps. His flight training began in a Jenny at Park Field near Memphis, Tenn.
Price’s first two instructors didn’t show up, due to a crack up and a forced landing. Eventually, his third flight instructor, nicknamed “Brownie,” took Price up for his first experience with the JN-4, but they had to land to change spark plugs before continuing the lesson. Brownie allowed Price to solo after only five hours of dual instruction, the minimum required at that time. Today, flight instructors sometimes require at least 20 hours of flight time before soloing.
“My grandfather told me Jenny pilots always carried wire cutters in their tool kits when flying cross-country,” recalls Keith. “That was so they could cut a strand of fence wire for temporary repairs, if they were forced to land somewhere.”
Sam Price passed his commission test in November of 1918, after the armistice ending World War I was signed. That same day, Brownie took the young pilot up in another Jenny to “show him how not to fly.” During that flight, Brownie never flew above 100 feet. He showed Price how to pick cotton with the undercarriage, wash the wheels in the Mississippi River, and fly sideways between trees.
“That was one of the best lessons my grandfather ever learned,” says Keith.
After learning some aerobatic maneuvers during their training, Price and several other cadets decided to play a game of aerial follow-the-leader. Each agreed to perform a stunt, then the others would try to duplicate it.
When Price’s turn came, he attempted a loop, but didn’t have sufficient speed to complete it and ended in inverted flight. A kink in his safety harness caused him to drop a few inches off the seat, so he let go of the control stick and grabbed onto the fuselage to prevent himself from falling out of the upside down open cockpit. This put the Jenny in a dive, from which Price had been trained to recover.
“No one tried to duplicate his stunt,” says Keith, “and when they landed, the group declared Sam was the winner of the contest. He never told anyone it was unintentional.”
Price was assigned to the Reserves after World War I and re-entered civilian life to pursue a career in pharmaceuticals. He rejoined the military during World War II and Korea, serving as CO of several air-training bases. He retired as a colonel after the Korean War.
Mimi, Price’s daughter, was born in 1923 and remembers her father as a pilot when they lived at various air bases during his military career.
“When he flew over our house when I was young, he would always wag his wings,” recalls Mimi. “I could say to my friends, ‘That’s my dad up there!’ Once a year we were allowed to go up in a plane with him – all members of the family, one at a time. There was no cover over the cockpit. You could put your hand out and feel the breeze. It was a very exciting experience. I felt very privileged, not afraid at all.”
Youth Exploring Aviation
The YEA is a program for young men and women (15 to 21) who are seriously considering a career in aviation. Since 2003, they have met at the museum hangar every Thursday evening. They recently completed a 10-year project to restore a 1941 Aeronca Chief single-engine airplane to flying condition.
Research by museum staff revealed that this particular airplane was originally owned by Fred Machesney, the namesake of Machesney Park, who once owned an airfield where Machesney Park Mall is now located. The village symbol is a biplane. The plane was later purchased by Richard Thomas, father of Poplar Grove Airport’s current co-owner, Steve Thomas. Steve found it at Cottonwood Airport and brought it back to Poplar Grove for the YEA project.
“That project literally started with parts in a trash barrel,” says Sam Darby, museum board member. “The senior members directed the work, but all hands-on work was done by the youth.”
The completed airplane will be the centerpiece of a new exhibit in the Vintage Wings & Wheels Museum next year. The exhibit will highlight the YEA restoration project and relate the history of Fred Machesney and Richard Thomas.
The Inverted Jenny
A JN-4H model, with an improved engine, became the first U.S. mail plane on May 15, 1918, with a flight from New York to Washington D.C. To commemorate this event, the U.S. Postal Service in 1918 issued a 24-cent airmail postage stamp with an image of the Jenny in the center. An inadvertent error by the press operator produced one sheet of 100 stamps with the biplane upside down. This stamp represents the rarest and most valuable known U.S. Post Office printing error of all time. A November 2018 auction saw one of these stamps sold for $1,593,000!