Jenny returns to the “sky” in Fairbanks, 90 years later

Curtis Jenny, after assembly but prior to being suspended in the terminal at Fairbanks International Airport

Curtis Jenny, after assembly but prior to being suspended in the terminal at Fairbanks International Airport

In 1923, then school teacher Ben Eielson talked a group of Fairbanks businessmen into buying a Curtis JN-4D, a bi-winged aircraft commonly known as a Jenny.  Eielson proceeded to fly out of the local ball field, and soon demonstrated that an airplane could reduce the time it took to travel to remote mining camps from days—or even weeks—to hours.  Even with a larger engine, it remained an open cockpit airplane, without a heater, which is pretty limiting for a cold climate like the interior of Alaska.

As more capable planes became available, the Jenny was sidelined and donated to the University of Alaska Museum in the mid-1930’s.  It spent almost half a century in a warehouse, before being brought back to the public’s eye in 1981. At that time, it was fitted with a set of wings from a different type of aircraft, and suspended In the terminal at Fairbanks International Airport (FAI).  When the terminal was reconstructed a few years ago, the Jenny was taken down, and became the object of a restoration project that started in 2007.  Now, thanks to a volunteer effort by the Pioneer Air Museum, University of Alaska Fairbanks Aviation Technology Program and Experimental Aircraft Association’s Chapter 1129, the Jenny sports new wings, built from scratch, a fresh coat of paint, and is aloft again over the baggage claim in the new terminal at FAI.  The history of the airplane was recently summarized in a feature story in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Another section of the paper recognized the team of volunteers who performed the restoration.

This airplane has earned its place in the history.  Jenny’s flooded the market after World War I, and in many respects jump started civil aviation.  It was affordable, and became a popular airplane for barn-storming, which is how much of the public was initially introduced to aviation. In Alaska, with fewer road-miles today than the state of New Hampshire, the Jenny showed the promise of aviation—even with its limited range and open cabin.  A fuel tank was designed and added to the upper wing to extend the range. A set of skis were fabricated to make it functional during the winter months—thus starting the Alaskan tradition of modifying aircraft to make them more suitable for our conditions. That tradition continues to this day.

An early aircraft repair and recovery on Wickersham Dome, northwest of Fairbanks. George King Collection, Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks

An early aircraft repair and recovery operation on Wickersham Dome, northwest of Fairbanks. George King Collection, Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks

A picture in the News-Miner article showing two Jenny’s on Wickersham Dome caught my eye.  In the mid-1920’s, Noel Wien was flying passengers to Livengood, a mining community fifty miles northwest of Fairbanks, when the water pump broke, causing Wien to make a forced landing.  In a landscape nominally covered with forest or boggy tundra, the top of Wickersham Dome was about the only place he thought he could attempt a precautionary landing, with any hope of avoiding major damage to the aircraft.  After getting the airplane on the ground, Wien and his two passengers walked the twenty-two miles to Olnes, the nearest mining camp, where they could use a phone to summon assistance.  Since this was after break-up in the spring, walking conditions were terrible.  It took them twenty hours to make the trek to Olnes.  After returning to Fairbanks, a second Jenny with the necessary parts and a mechanic was pressed into service to make the rescue.  On landing, a wheel was damaged on the second aircraft, but they had anticipated that possibility, and brought an extra wheel along. After making the necessary repairs, both airplanes took off successfully. This story is documented in Ira Harkey’s book, Noel Wien, Alaska Pioneer Bush Pilot.  In that time, before the gravel and paved runways we enjoy today, even the planned “landing fields” were hard on another part of the airplane–the propeller.  It was a common practice to have an extra prop tied on to the side of the aircraft to be used, if necessary, for the trip home.

Earlier this year Alaska celebrated the centennial of the first powered flight, which took place in Fairbanks on July 3rd, 1913.   The Jenny arrived in Fairbanks on July 1, 1923, almost exactly a decade after that first demonstration flight.  Even with its limitations, I think it is fair to say that the Jenny claimed the prize as the first aircraft in Fairbanks to show the commercial potential of “the aviation.”   Seeing the Jenny “fly” again is a fitting way to wrap up the Centennial of Flight in Alaska.

This entry was posted in Alaska by Tom George. Bookmark the permalink.

About Tom George

Tom George serves as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Regional Manager for Alaska. He resides in Fairbanks, and flies a Cessna 185. Follow Alaska aviation activities and events on Twitter at http://www.twitter/AOPAAlaska or at: http://www.aopa.org/region/ak

3 thoughts on “Jenny returns to the “sky” in Fairbanks, 90 years later

  1. The restoration of the Jenny was indeed a great event. My father Noel Wien and my uncle Ralph Wien flew it a lot. They gave flight instructions to several people including some that went on to careers in aviation also.

    The picture on Wickersham Dome does show the Jenny which was used to bring the parts for the other aircraft in the picture. The other aircraft is a Hisso Standard not another Jenny. The Hisso powered Standard is the aircraft my father had a forced landing with on the Dome. The Standard had been upgraded with the more powerful 150 hp Hisso, and a heaver landing gear, by the Curtis company. As a result it was sometime referred to as a Curtis Standard, which could add to the confusion. It made a great bush airplane for its time. Like the Jenny, the Standards originally had the OX-5 engine. The long range tank was put on the Standard by my father while he was in Anchorage in June of 1924. He needed the extra range so he could make the first flight to Fairbanks nonstop, as there were no airstrips between the two cities. The Jenny never did have an extra tank installed, however it was later modified with a Hisso engine, which it still has. When Noel had the forced landing on the dome, June 1925, due to a water pump failure, he damaged the prop. With the Jenny they flew in a spare pump and prop. After that experience Noel carried a spare prop on the side of the Standard. It is easy to mistake the two aircraft as they look similar.

    Because of that event, we ended up spreading the ashes of both my father and mother, and my sister on the dome. My wife berry picks there each summer.
    Best Regards, Richard A. Wien AOPA #00968069

  2. I enjoyed the Fairbanks Jenny article, and particularly the note by Richard Wien. But, I have to ask, after reading the sentence below, “Jenny’s” what?

    “A picture in the News-Miner article showing two Jenny’s on Wickersham Dome caught my eye.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>