Property of the Western Reserve Historical Society; formerly owned by William H. Long
1917 Curtiss MF 'Seagull' Hydroaeroplane
Registration no. NC903; Formerly USN A-5543
Two seat, side-by-side hydroaeroplane with open cockpit and dual control; Price when new $6,000
Engine: Curtiss OXX6, V8, overhead valve, 4 x 5 inches, 502.7 cu.ins., 100hp at 1,200 rpm
Measurements: Wing span: upper wing 49 feet, 9 3/8 inches. Overall length: 28 feet, 10 3/16 inches. Weight: 1796 pounds
Glenn H. Curtiss
There's a famous picture of Henry Ford standing beside a brand new Curtiss E-Boat, c. 1912. The other party in the picture is Glenn Curtiss. If you know the story behind Old Henry and Evangeline Dahlinger you can easily imagine what Henry might have been thinking, because he's grinning somewhat mischievously. It could have been something like this, "By golly, I'm going to get my young lady friend one of these outfits!"
Evangeline did eventually own a Curtiss flying boat which was paid for by Henry Ford. It was an MF, obtained from WW1 navy surplus. She adored the Curtiss, being a sportswoman who loved motor-boating and flying, and flew it for a number of years. Evangeline was the first woman in the state of Michigan to earn a pilots license. It was certificate #P 2170.
Evangeline was also Henry's long-time paramour and bore him a son, John, who put a new twinkle in the eye of the 60-year-old billionaire. Henry's long gone and so is Evangeline and her son John, too, who served with distinction as a naval aviator in WW2, but the MF boat may be seen today at The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum, Hammondsport New York on loan from the Ford Museum.
The MF was the culmination of Glenn Curtiss's greatest contribution to aviation; namely, the perfection of the seaplane. Glenn didn't invent the flying boat as some biographers would have us believe, but he was among the first to experiment with pontoons and flying boat hulls. Glenn was nothing if not an innovator and inventor. The aileron was a GHC invention and it quickly replaced the primitive wing-warping method of lateral control patented by the Wrights.
In some quarters Curtiss was considered a scoundrel, who sought to rob the Wright brothers of their rightful place as the leader of world aviation. He certainly made vast inroads in a business that had been monopolized by the Wrights and his perfection of the flying boat was largely responsible for the preeminence he was beginning to enjoy. The Wrights sued Curtiss for patent infringements and spent the next decade and more trying to run him out of business. In the end, however, the Curtiss and the Wright interests settled their antipathy by combining their vast resources under the Curtiss-Wright banner.
Curtiss produced hundreds of F-boats for a worldwide market. Indeed, he probably sold more aircraft abroad than he did at home, for a while. The Russians were among his best customers, so was Japan, Italy, England and France. One of the spinoffs of the F-boat was a scaled-up version christened the "America," built in 1914 for projected trans-Atlantic operations. The onset of the war in Europe ended plans to fly the Atlantic and the "America" was sold to the Royal Navy for coastal patrol duties.
By 1917, the European powers were far ahead of the United States in developing combat aircraft and the need to acquire modern equipment proved beyond the capabilities of our
aircraft industry, including both the Curtiss and Wright companies. Consequently, the U.S. military establishments turned to France, Italy and Britain for equipment, with the exception of training aircraft, such as the ubiquitous Curtiss JN4D "Jenny" and the Curtiss flying boats.
The "America" foretold the shape of our greatest contribution to the 1914-18 Allied war effort in the air; namely, the anti-submarine patrol boat. In the ensuing four years the Curtiss company produced hundreds of large, multi-engine H-class flying boats for the USN, whose primary function in the war was to seek out and destroy the Kaiser's submarine fleet.
The U.S. Navy's fleet of F-boats, used almost entirely for training, remained essentially unchanged from the original design dating from 1912-13. By 1918, an improved model was needed, which resulted in the Model MF, meaning modernized F-boat. It was powered by the 100-hp Curtiss OXX6, and had many improvements, including sponsons borrowed from the "America", which greatly improved planning and stability. Curtiss delivered an order for six MFs to the Navy and a further 16 on a second order for 47, which was terminated in November 1918 by the Armistice.
The MF was an excellent trainer and the Navy procured eighty more from the Naval Aircraft Factory at Philadelphia, which had been created in 1917 to offset lagging deliveries from both foreign and domestic suppliers. The NAF had in fact produced under license at least as many Curtiss types as the Curtiss company itself. The MFs were delivered in 1919-20, primarily to naval training units at Pensacola, Miami, Key West and the Curtiss-managed flying schools established at Atlantic City and Buffalo.
Some MFs saw operational service with the fleet. At least one is known to have been aboard the minelayer U.S.S. Aroostook, flagship of the Naval Air Detachment assigned in 1919 to the Pacific Fleet. Due to postwar cutbacks, however, it is probable that many MFs saw no service at all and their naval history amounted to a year or so in storage.
Naval inventories for July 1921 and 1922 show 87 and 73 MFs on charge respectively. Many of these aircraft were subsequently sold as surplus and the Curtiss company converted others to what became known as the MF "Seagull", which mainly involved engine changes to increase horsepower and seating to accommodate additional passengers. A variety of engine options were available, of which the 150-hp Hispano-Suiza and 160-hp Curtiss C-6 were the most numerous.
Among the first buyers of the MF Seagull was Sid Chaplin, brother of comedian Charlie Chaplin, who put up the money. Sid became a Curtiss distributor for Southern California and sold a number of MFs to sportsmen and commercial operators. He used one himself to start a passenger service to Catalina, which logged 1,067 charter flights between July 1 and September 15, 1919.
A former naval flight instructor, Capt. Harry Rogers, dba Rogers Air Lines, was probably the first commercial operator on the East Coast to use Seagulls. He had a fleet of five for instruction and charter work, operating from several locations, including the beaches of Rye, N.Y., Lake George and Port Washington. During the winter months Rogers and his crew of five or more pilots operated out of Miami.
During the winter months Rogers Air Lines operated out of Miami. One of his Seagulls was detailed to the Bahamas to fly the colonial governor, Sir Charles Orr and other administrators around the islands. One such outing included a survey of San Salvadore, the island where Columbus made his first landfall in the New World. The Seagull, piloted by Bob Moore, was the first aircraft to reconnoiter the site for photographic purposes, using a copy of a chart that Columbus had made himself.
The Volstead Act of 1919 brought prohibition and booze smuggling. The Bahamas became a supply center for rum-runners, as did various points in Canada and Mexico. A number of Curtiss F-boats and MF Seagulls were involved in the illicit trade early on.
Many pilots ran afoul of the law, were busted and went to prison. Others, more lucky, would later distinguish themselves with the infant airline industry. Ed Musick of Pan American's Pacific Division was one of them.
Rogers was down to two Seagulls and three Fairchild FC-2 floatplanes when he opened his eighth season at Miami in November 1928. He still firmly believed that the Seagull was the best flying boat in its class ever built. The upshot of that was his own metal-clad version called the Rogers RBX Sea Eagle. It was powered by a 150-hp Curtiss C6 and accommodated three passengers and the pilot. The onset of the Great Depression precluded further production and Harry signed on with Pan American Airways as operations manager of the Miami-Nassau service.
Howard Hughes had his first ride in a Curtiss MF. It was in 1926, during the Harvard-Yale boat races on the Connecticut River. We don't know for certain who the pilot was, but almost certainly it was either Harry Rogers or one of his pilots. Hughes remained a seaplane enthusiast throughout his flying career and was known for his habit of borrowing seaplanes and disappearing for days on end with a new girlfriend.
Perhaps the most newsworthy MF was the one that accompanied the Alexander Hamilton Rice Expedition to Brazil for a 9-month stint exploring the Amazon. Piloted by Walter Hinton of NC-4 trans-Atlantic fame, the MF 'boat was the camera platform for filming 1,700 miles of the Amazon and its environs. Capt. Albert W. Stevens chronicled the expedition for the National Geographic. Stevens, an Army aviator specializing in aerial photography, had to hand crank the 'boat's Kirkham engine for each start up, which necessitated jumping into the water when the MF was afloat with the propeller turning. Voracious piranhas and other denizens of the region made these activities risky and Stevens became a very fast swimmer in his haste to either get ashore or back in the cockpit, depending on the mission for the day.
Byron (Dinty) Moore flew the mail for the Gulf Coast Airline, which began operations in 1924 with a pair of MFs. The Seagulls were still skittering up and down the Mississippi in 1929 when Moore hired on. His first mail run was preceded by a whole afternoon of hard labor helping to re-install the 150-hp Hisso, which received such hard use that it required almost daily overhauls. It took everyone in the shop, including Henry Ramsdell, the other pilot; a carpenter and GCA's owner, a non-flying Cajon entrepreneur by the name of Art Camus to manhandle the Hisso into its cradle between the wings.
Moore and Ramsdell, who was more or less self-taught and had never flown anything but MFs, formed up to fly their mail runs to Pilot Island together, except that Moore's MF was so loaded down with mail that he couldn't get out of ground effect, or in this case water effect. Moore was obliged to stay within the confines of the Mississippi, being incapable of rising above the embankment. Instead of steering a direct course, he had to follow the meandering Mississippi.
About half way to Pilottown the Hisso coughed once and quit. Moore, still barely twenty feet above the river, had no choice but to land straight ahead. He then found himself drifting toward a bayou full of alligators and snakes, but the mosquitos turned out to be even more predacious. After several hours a launch appeared and Moore and the Seagull were towed ashore.
During his gig with Gulf Coast Airways, Moore experienced an engine failure about once a week. He got on with American Airways in 1930, when it was a rag-tag collection of hand-me-down airplanes and threadbare pilots from the bottom rung of aviation's social ladder. Moore began flying AA's Sikorsky S-38 amphibians over the Great Lakes routes and remained on the job, with time out for WW2, as a senior captain well into the jet age.
Eddie Nirmaier was cruising his Seagull around Biscayne Bay, admiring the City of Miami, which was in the throes of its first real estate boom, when he noticed a plume of smoke emanating from a small launch which was quickly engulfed with flames. The crew abandoned ship, having tossed a number of white bundles into the water. Eddie, who was alone in the Seagull, landed and plucked the unfortunate mariners from the sea, along with their bundles, which turned out to be soiled hotel linen they were ferrying across the bay to a Miami laundry.
The legendary Paul "Pappy" Gunn of Bataan and Corregidore airlift fame had to lie about his age to get into Naval Aviation. He was detailed to the Pensacola kitchen when his superiors discovered he was barely 17, then to a mechanics school. Gunn, a high school drop-out, had enlisted for six years soon after the U.S. threw in with the Allies in 1917.
Six years later Gunn was an aviation machinists' mate 1st class when he started taking instruction at his own expense on weekends. He was determined to be an aviator and had saved $250, which he invested in an MF 'boat that had been surveyed for salvage. It required a good deal of TLC before being deemed both airworthy and seaworthy.
Gunn and his girlfriend got married at Pensacola in June 1923 and embarked for New Orleans in the MF on their honeymoon, which earned the newlyweds a measure of fame they had not bargained for. Indeed, they were so pestered by newspaper reporters that they flew back to Pensacola to find some privacy.
Gunn earned his USN wings when he reenlisted for another six years. By 1941, he was retired from the Navy and working for a Hawaiian airline, instructing on weekends. The attack on Pearl Harbor found him in the Philippines with a field commission as an Air Corps captain, where his exploits during the Japanese onslaught became legendary.
This Curtiss MF
Built by the Naval Aircraft Factory at its facility in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, A-5543 was the sixty-first Curtiss MF flying boat produced in a batch of eighty. There are no log books and its service history is undocumented, but an effort is underway to ascertain as much as possible from naval archives and records in FAA dead storage. Almost certainly A-5543 was posted to a naval aviation training station, possibly at Pensacola or Atlantic City. It is thought to have been released for sale as government surplus in 1923 or '24.
Records are sketchy, but it appears that A-5543 had a single owner, William H. Long, who was the owner and longtime operator of the Lorain, Ohio airport. Long is said to have based the MF at Sandusky Bay, from which he made frequent trips to Cedar Point Amusement Park, presumably flying joyriders and sightseers. With the advent of federal control of civil aviation in late 1926, A-5543 was licensed as a 2-seater and received the Dept. of Commerce registration C903, later as NC903, in compliance with commercial flight regulations at that time. The engine appears to be the 100-hp Curtiss OXX6, outwardly identical to the ubiquitous OX5.
Long's pilot was an Early Bird by the name of Albert J. Engel, who began flying in 1911. Engel is said to have been the son of a designer employed by the White Co. of Cleveland, builder of luxury automobiles. Albert apparently had the wherewithal to purchase his own Curtiss-built pusher biplane, which cost about $5,000.
Engel acquired another Curtiss-built pusher which he operated on pontoons from Rocky River at the Lakewood Yacht Club, now the Cleveland Yachting Club. He called it the "Bumble Bee" and barnstormed with it from the Edgewater and Willow Beach Parks as well as Chautauqua Lake until about 1914.
Some thirty-odd years later Engel and his friend Bill Long refurbished the MF with new wing fabric and varnished the hull. They subsequently donated their vintage aircraft to Cleveland's Frederick C. Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum on June 21, 1945. On display for many years at the Western Historical Reserve Society, the MF was retired from public exhibition in recent times.
Through display and while in storage, the flying boat has been treated with considerable care, and today it is in remarkably good order for its age. A careful visual analysis of the wood shows it to be consistent with the belief that it was re-varnished in the mid 1940s. There are some small tears to the aerofoil fabric covering, most notably the underside of the left side upper wing. Structurally it seems to be excellent. Close examination of the hardware shows it to be original including the structural wiring, fasteners and wing struts many still have Curtiss numbering stamped into them. Most of the hardware is also stamped with the US Navy insignia and numbered also. The motor seems to have its original matched 'Dixie' twin spark magnetos with original dash control switch, the cockpit instrumentation consists of US Navy engraved gasoline, altitude, oil and temperature gauges and a Lunkenheimer air pressure pump sits between the two pilots.
Aesthetically, when fully assembled the "Seagull" is a magnificent sight to behold, aside from its obvious significant presence, it is probably most attractive for the warm color of the gently aged wood, hammered copper trims and overall patina the like of which only time can bestow on an object. For any person who appreciates this innovative and pioneering era of flight, sailing and engineering, it harnesses all in one single beautiful package.
Known surviving Curtiss MF
Glenn H. Curtiss Museum, Hammondsport, NY
National Museum of Naval Aviation, Pensacola, Florida, USA
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington D.C. (hull no engine or wings)
Canada Aviation Museum, Ottawa, Ontario
Viewing will be at 590 Madison Avenue from Saturday, April 3rd thru Saturday, April 17th, 2010
Monday thru Friday 8am-8pm
Saturday & Sunday 7am-10pm
Footnote: The Curtiss MF dis-assembles with relative ease and can be readily be broken down to road transportable dimensions. For long distance freight/shipping it has previously been crated. For further information contact Bonhams New York.