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The first officially acknowledged flight by a powered, heavier than air aeroplane took place on December 17 1903. That historic flight was piloted by Wilbur Wright. He and his brother Orville flew the aircraft, named the Wright Flyer, four times that day, over a total of two minutes of flight time, covering 1,500′ in the process. The Triad was still eight years away.

Curtiss A-1 Triad

That same year a motor-cycle and engine builder named Glenn Curtiss had set a world speed record of 64mph on a motor-cycle. Then two years later he had more than doubled that record to 136 mph in a V-8 powered motor-cycle of his own design. That record was not broken until 1930 and Curtiss was known as the ‘fastest man in the world’.

 Glenn Curtiss on his V-8 motorcycle, Ormond Beach, Florida, in January 1906
Glenn Curtiss on his V-8 motorcycle, Ormond Beach, Florida, in January 1906

Over the next few years Curtiss designed engines for dirigibles (airships) and took an increasing interest in flying machines. In 1907 the famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell invited Curtiss to join his newly formed Aerial Experiment Association (AEE).

The AEE built four aircraft between 1908 and 1910, and the third of those was designed, built and flown by Curtiss. In what was another historic moment, Curtiss took to the air in that aircraft, named June Bug, on July 4 1908 in what was the first officially witnessed flight in the world. In other words, it was the first pre-announced, public flight of a heavier than air flying machine.

The June Bug (or Aerodrome #3) was an early aircraft designed by Glenn Curtiss and built by the Aerial Experiment Association in 1908.
The June Bug (or Aerodrome #3) was an early aircraft designed by Glenn Curtiss and built by the Aerial Experiment Association in 1908.

Over the next few years Curtiss maintained his interest in flying machines, taking part in various exhibitions, meetings and competitions. In 1909 the US operated it’s first military plane, the Wright Military Flyer, using it as an aerial observer and artillery spotter. But the US Navy were also interested in using flying machines to expand their capabilities.

Curtiss came to the notice of the Navy in 1910, and later that year he set up a training camp for naval officers in San Diego to teach flying to Army and Navy personnel. The Navy still has a base at that location, and San Diego remains a major hub for the US Navy to this day.

That training camp began a relationship between Curtiss and the Navy that would last for decades. in 1911 Curtiss flew the first seaplane (with floats) in the United States, and helped in the development of the first aeroplanes to launch from a ship.

Design and Development

Curtiss had built several aeroplanes by now, with his latest being the land-based Model D bi-plane. But he was taking an increasing interest in the concept of seaplanes and so his Model E incorporated a central pontoon and two smaller wingtip floats. It also has a set of wheels alongside the central pontoon that could be raised or lowered by the pilot. In addition it was designed from the outset to be a two seater, unlike the Model D.

Curtiss received assistance in the float design from US naval officer Lt. Theodore Ellyson. The first Model Es flew from land in late 1910. In November of that year Curtiss demonstrated the type’s ability to launch from a platform on the forward turret of the USS Birmingham and then land back on shore at an airfield.

In January 1911 Curtiss flew the Model E from an airfield and landed on an improvised flat wooden deck built on the aft section of the USS Pennsylvania. The Model E first flew from the water in late January 1911 and in the same month Ellyson became a qualified pilot, making his first flight, albeit from land.

Curtiss A-1 Triad
Curtiss A-1 Triad

In February the Model E demonstrated the ability to take off and land from both land and sea. The following month Ellyson flew as a passenger with Curtiss in the Model E, to become the first every passenger to fly in a float-plane. Testing of the Model E design continued in earnest from February 1911 onwards.

Curtiss call this amphibious plane the Triad because it could operate in the air and from land or sea. The Navy ordered their own version of the Model E/Triad, which Curtiss designated the Model E-8-75. The Navy called it the A-1.

On May 8 1911 the Navy ordered the first of their A-1s, going on to order a total of 14. These were the US Navy’s first aircraft, and Lt. Ellyson flew the A-1 from Lake Keuka in New York on June 30 1911, cementing his official status as the first US Naval Aviator.

As an aside, Curtiss received pilot licence #1 from the Aero Club of America on June 8 1911. The first batch of licences were issued in alphabetical order and so the world’s first official pilot of a heavier than air aeroplane, Wilbur Wright, received licence #5.

The A-1/Triad thus became the first plane to be launched by catapult, the first amphibious aircraft, the first Navy plane to use a radio, and subsequently the winner of many speed and endurance records. The success of the Triad led to Curtiss being awarded the Collier Trophy and he was given the title of “The Father of Naval Aviation”.

Operational History

By as early as 1913 the US Navy and British Royal Navy had improvised seaplane carriers – ships that could embark with seaplanes on board, hangar them and could use a winch to lower them into the water and subsequently retrieve them after a flight.

World War Two commenced in 1914 and by then the three-year old A-1 design was already becoming obsolete in comparison to more advanced and capable types such as the Curtiss N-9, that was introduced in 1916.

However the Triad’s place in history is clear. It was among the very first aircraft able to operate from both land or sea. It spawned the concept of projecting air-power across oceans through specialised ships built to operate dozens of aircraft. This is best exemplified by the mighty US Navy with their fleet of 100,000 ton, 1,000′ long aircraft carriers which each operate up to 90 advanced aircraft like the Boeing Super Hornet.

The British Royal Navy converted a passenger ship into the world’s first dedicated aircraft carrier, commissioning it in September 1918 as the HMS Argus.

HMS Argus - coverted from a passenger liner into the world's first aircraft carrier. Wikimedia Commons.
HMS Argus – coverted from a passenger liner into the world’s first aircraft carrier. Wikimedia Commons.

The US Navy converted a collier (coal carrier) into their first aircraft carrier, named her the USS Langley and commissioned her in March 1922.

USS Langley - the USA's first aircraft carrier. Wikimedia Commons.
USS Langley – the USA’s first aircraft carrier. Wikimedia Commons.

Put simply, the Triad gave birth Naval Aviation. A total of 14 A-1s were purchased by the Navy and they were allocated serial numbers of AH-1 onwards. Apparently A-1s were also sold to Great Britain, Germany, Russia and Japan in 1912. Three Triads purchased by Japan were the foundation of naval aviation in that country.

Variants

Model E-4

Version with a 40 hp four cylinder engine

Model E-8

Version with a 60 hp V-8 engine

Model E-8-75

The initial Navy version, with a 75 hp V-8 engine

Videos

Specifications

Make Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company
Model A-1 Triad
Aircraft Type Pusher biplane and floatplane – a ‘hydroaeroplane’
Role Training and experiments
Crew complement Pilot and passenger
First flight January 1911
Last flight October 16, 1912
Number produced At least 14
Unit cost $4,000
Maximum weight 1,575 lb
Powerplant(s) One 75 hp Curtiss V-8 piston engine
Wingspan 37′
Length 27′ 7″
Height 9′ 4″
Payload Negligible
Range 124 statute miles
Combat radius Not applicable
Service ceiling More than 900′
Cruise speed  –
Maximum speed  65mph
Claim to fame  The US Navy’s first aircraft.

More Aircraft

You can learn more about the Triad at the US National Naval Aviation Museum. See more aircraft like this in our Aircraft section.

Books about Glenn Curtiss

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