Image: Twin-engine flying boat "America"
Glenn H. Curtiss Museum via AP
A group of volunteers launch the twin-engine flying boat "America" in Keuka Lake in Hammondsport, N.Y., Sept. 2007. The twin-engine flying boat was created by the Wright brothers' bitter rival, Glenn H. Curtiss, with one mission in mind: to vanquish the Atlantic.
updated 9/13/2007 1:03:10 PM ET 2007-09-13T17:03:10

In the formative years of aviation, when the whir of a tiny engine overhead still drew gasps of wonder, one plane stood out.

The twin-engine "America" weighed 1 3/4 tons, had a 72-foot wingspan, and took off and landed on water. Its top cruising speed: A mere 65 mph.

It was created by the Wright brothers' bitter rival, Glenn H. Curtiss, with one mission in mind: to leap the Atlantic. It was edging toward attempting the first transoceanic crossing in 1914 when war intervened.

"Getting the America off the water with enough fuel aboard was proving to be problematical — that's what they were struggling with when World War I broke out and put the kibosh to the whole thing," said Trafford Doherty, director of the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in tiny Hammondsport in western New York.

Thousands of onlookers hope to get a taste of that bygone era Saturday when a near-replica of the experimental biplane makes an appearance. Whether the reproduction takes to the air, even for just a few minutes, remains an uncertainty.

Test flights were nixed through Wednesday, in part because the museum's volunteer team of vintage aircraft rebuilders hasn't yet acquired the 100-horsepower, counter-rotating Curtiss OXX-6 engines that powered the original.

Pilot Jim Poel said the America will run across Keuka Lake during Saturday's afternoon fifth annual seaplane festival in honor of Hammondsport's fabled son. "But whether it's an actual flight or not, we're doing our best to make that happen," Poel said.

Incongruous though it seems, Hammondsport was the airplane manufacturing capital of America at the start of World War I. Its brief celebrity rested on Curtiss, whose aircraft innovations swiftly eclipsed those of Orville and Wilbur Wright and helped fight two world wars.

On July 4, 1908, Curtiss flew over Hammondsport in his bamboo-and-fabric June Bug in the nation's first officially observed flight exceeding 1 kilometer (0.6 mile). Three years later, he created the world's first seaplane, earning renown as "the father of naval aviation."

Curtiss, who would eventually rack up 500 inventions, built hundreds of flying boats. Many of them were used for military patrols during World War I, when his business shifted into high gear.

While the America never got to do the job it was made for, it left a lasting mark on seaplane design. Sold to Britain, it became the prototype for the first anti-submarine patrol planes used by the Royal Navy.

Another Curtiss-designed flying boat, the U.S. Navy-commissioned NC-4, became the first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic in May 1919, stopping on several islands. Seventeen days later, Britons John Alcock and Arthur Brown made the first nonstop aerial crossing in a modified bomber.

Built from scratch using blueprints, photographs and original materials, the newest America has only slight alterations to boost strength and safety. Its 34-foot-long wooden hull is draped in a fireproof poly fiber instead of silk and fastened with epoxy rather than animal glues.

The museum expects to showcase the plane next year at a few air shows around the country before putting it on display alongside its collection of early aviation originals and replicas.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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