Curtiss-Wright Celebrates 120 Years of Aviation Technology

December 29, 2023 by Duane Benson

On the 120th anniversary of the first powered, controlled flight by a heavier-than-air aircraft, we reflect on Curtiss-Wright's legacy as an aviation pioneer.

December 17th, 2023, marks 120 years of powered, controlled flight. On that day in 1903, Orville Wright and Wilbur Wright took to the air in the first powered, controllable heavier-than-air aircraft.


Wrights first flight

December 17, 1903, with Orville at the controls and Wilbur looking on. Image (modified) used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons [Public domain]


That story is a well-read section of history books. However, the just-as-remarkable progress of aircraft from the Curtiss-Wright Corporation between then and now is far from the spotlight.


The Wright Brothers Achieve First in Flight

The late 1800s and early 1900s were the halcyon days of transportation innovation, marked by breakthrough inventions in engines, land vehicles, airships, and heavier-than-air flying machines.

Among the most notable inventors were Orville and Wilbur Wright of Dayton, Ohio. The Wright brothers upstarted a number of ventures until forming a successful bicycle business in 1892. Bicycles were one of the hot new technologies in transportation at the time. But despite that success, the brothers were not content.

Orville credited a small rubber band-powered helicopter toy—an 1878 childhood gift to the brothers from their father—for sparking his interest in aviation. Two events inspired the brothers to invest funds from their successful bicycle business into heavier-than-air flight: the 1896 death of the great German glider pioneer Otto Lilienthal in a flying accident and Samuel Langley's invention of a powered model glider. The Wright brothers spent the next seven years creating many aviation firsts before successfully building a controllable airplane with sufficient power to sustain flight.


Glenn Curtiss and the "Jenny" of WWI

Glenn Curtiss also got his start in the bicycle arena, though primarily as a racer. Curtiss raced his self-built bicycles and moved up to racing motorcycles. Another inquisitive mind, he turned toward aviation in the early 1900s, building engines for lighter-than-air airships. Curtiss’ greatest “first” came with the first successful flight of a naval vessel in 1910.


Glenn Curtiss demonstrates first ship-born takeoff
November 14, 1910, Glenn Curtiss demonstrates first ship-born takeoff. Image used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons [Public domain]

Curtiss and the Wrights were rivals throughout the first decade of flight, with the Wright brothers pursuing and eventually winning patent infringement cases. Tragically, Wilbur Wright succumbed to illness in 1912 before the resolution of the legal issues in 1914. Orville sold the company in 1915 but did not abandon the industry. He continued to support aviation, serving as a board and committee member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor of NASA.

Curtiss made a name during the First World War as a manufacturer of training aircraft Curtiss JN-4, more commonly known as the “Jenny.” 6,813 Jennys were built and used to train 95% of U.S. pilots preparing for the war. After the war, many Jennys were sold at fire sale prices and were used to jumpstart civilian aviation in the U.S. with barnstorming, airmail, and flight training. 

The early post-war years were challenging, and Curtiss cashed out of the company during a 1920 reorganization. Control of the company passed to Clement Melville Keys, a financier and one of the key developers of the American aviation industry.  Glenn Curtiss remained a company director but put much of his time into further entrepreneurship, founding 18 more companies after his corporate retirement.


The Curtiss-Wright Corporation Is Born

In 1929, the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company merged with Wright Aeronautical, along with 18 other aviation-related businesses, to become the Curtiss-Wright Corporation under the leadership of Keys.

Curtiss-Wright played an important role in the Second World War. Five Curtiss P-36 Hawk fighter aircraft provided some level of resistance during the attack on Pear Harbor. The successor, the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, was made famous for defending China with the American Volunteer Group (AVG), better known as the Flying Tigers.

The Wright name had a prominent place in the Second World War as well, with 128,000 Wright engines powering Allied aircraft. After the war, however, Curtiss-Wright failed to make the transition to the jet age and exited airplane manufacturing, selling the airplane division to North American Aviation.


Curtiss-Wright Enters the Electronics Age

Curtiss-Wright’s first entry into the world of electronics came in the late war years with the 1943 manufacture of an AT-6 aircraft electronic simulator designed by Richard C. Dehmel Ph.D. Curtiss-Wright was the first to include analog computers to simulate flight control responses based on real-world behaviors. They also connected the trainers to simulated navigational radio beams.

World’s first electronic flight simulator
World’s first electronic flight simulator. Image used courtesy of The National Center for Simulation

In 1951, Curtiss-Wright opened its electronics division to build simulators for civilian and military use. The plant also produced electronic controls for engines, propellers, guided missiles, and military nuclear reactor equipment.


Soaring Into the 21st Century

At the turn of the century, Curtiss-Wright was heavily dependent on the volatile commercial aviation industry. Through acquisitions and diversification, they have now developed a much broader technology platform that includes sensors, defense electronics, and embedded computing.

In October 2023, Curtiss-Wright continued aviation advancement with a $34M contract for advanced airborne data recording systems in uncrewed navy aircraft systems. The data recorder technology operates within Curtiss-Wright’s modular open system architecture (MOSA) initiative. Open architecture for advanced electronic systems lowers the costs of initial deployments and upgrades and simplifies interoperability.

Curtiss-Wright embedded computing module
Curtiss-Wright embedded computing module. Image used courtesy of Curtiss-Wright

Today, Curtiss-Wright is a publicly traded company with $2.6B in revenue and 8,400 employees in the aerospace, industrial, defense electronics, naval, and power industries. It’s one of the thousands of companies that produce critical components for these industries with little notice from the world at large. Yet with a legacy that includes the first controlled, powered flight, the first take off from a ship, and the first electronics flight simulator, Curtiss-Wright has a pedigree like few others.