The Aviation History of Port Washington, Long Island

1. Amphibious Aircraft Development:

Water, not land, drew aviation to Port Washington, Long Island. Like the Hempstead Plains, the flat expanse of Manhasset Bay fronting it, evoking nautical images, became inextricably tied to aeronautical development during the first half of the 20th century. Its calm, deep waters– centrally located only 15 miles from New York City, yet at the threshold of the Atlantic Ocean and the European continent-proved the ideal breeding ground for craft which combined the buoyancy of the boat with the aerodynamics of the airplane.

Wealthy aristocrats, such as Guggenheim and Vanderbilt-engaging in yachting on the very waters which were overlooked by their opulent, North Shore mansions-and endowed with significant wealth for the activity, logically sublimated the sport to flying, transitioning from floating craft to air craft. Nautical designers, facilitating this change, equally progressed to this new technology, and Port Washington’s Manhasset Bay, like Nassau County’s Hempstead Plains, rapidly became the cradle of seaplane aviation.

Glenn Curtiss, soon to become synonymous with this branch, both designed and successfully tested the first dual-mode, sea-and-sky airframe, the “F” Boat, here in 1912, inherently expressed in its very name, the “Port Washington,” and its succeeding, larger and improved-performance “M” (for “modified”) version, met the US Navy’s specifications for such a seaplane and resulted in an order five years later, in 1917.

Having already constructed a seaplane base here the previous year, with workshops, hangars, and ramps, Curtiss was able to offer an array of related services, including floatplane testing, pilot training, and public familiarization rides, and this branch was officially established in July when 12 men from Yale University, forming the First Yale Aviation Unit, received Naval pilot training here from Curtiss School Instructor David McCulloch in an “F” Boat. The fleet later encompassed “M” Boat, N-9, and R-9 aircraft.

If Manhasset Bay had been a mirror, it would have reflected an increasing number of speed, altitude, and distance records written above it. In October of 1919, for instance, Caleb Bragg, a local resident, attained a 19,100-foot altitude in a Loening Monoplane, while David McCulloch himself climbed 400 feet higher two years later, in August, a record applicable to both land- and seaplanes because of the four people it carried.

Port Washington also served as the home base of an airline which, established in 1919 and operating four, six-passenger Curtiss flying boats, served the Long Island-Atlantic City route, long before casinos were ever envisioned there.

Continually using Manhasset Bay as an aquatic testing surface, Curtiss initiated a series of floatable, powerless glider flights on September 6, 1922. Towed by a speedboat back to its hangar after four unsuccessful attempts to attain sufficient lift off of Port Washington, the sailplane, a miniaturized version of the Navy-Curtiss NC flying boat with a 24-foot-long duralumin hull; a modified bow; 28-foot, silk-covered wings; spruce struts; and the Curtiss signature shoulder yoke control system; finally harnessed a hitherto absent breeze and surrendered to the air for a sustained, nine-second aerial interlude, permitting him to release his grasp of the tow rope for the first time that day. Formerly restricted to land and hilltop launches, gliding now expanded to the aquatic realm.

“This is the first step in sea soaring,” Curtiss proclaimed. Unlike the traditional, land-based gliders, which maintained balance by means of vertical currents, its nautical counterpart negotiated sea-air whose currents moved parallel with the water and needed to emulate the albatross bird, “which takes off from a wave and soars immediately,” according to him. In order to continue soaring, he needed to “have knowledge of the variations of air currents over the water,” the intended aim of his initial experiments.

Subsequent flights demonstrated that the absence of a breeze and not an inherent design deficiency, was the culprit of the first four failed attempts, which had exhibited optimum balance and control before having been released from their tethers.

Some of these aviation advancements were not without support and financial backing. In 1926, for example, Sands Point resident Daniel Guggenheim and his son, Harry, promoted air competitions and provided incentives to improve aeronautical safety and reliability.

2. Early Manufacturers:

Aside from Curtiss designs, those of the EDO Aircraft Corporation equally used Manhasset Bay as their acceleration surface.

Founded by Earl Dodge Osborn, whose initials provided his company’s name, in College Point on the shore of Flushing Bay with 14 employees, he designed his first aircraft, designated the “Malolo,” the following year. Powered by a 110-hp, twin-bladed engine mounted atop its high wing, the small, all-metal, hull-shaped seaplane, sporting a pontoon beneath it, proved too slow to attract any orders, but its novel aluminum floats, a radical departure from the heavy, water damage-prone wooden ones, were strong and durable, yet light weight.

Switching his focus from designing seaplanes to the pontoons which supported them, he was able to retrofit land-based aircraft, whose range was then insufficient for anything other than short sectors and whose required concrete runways were often inadequate in both length and number, thus provisioning them for long-range travel with the unlimited ocean expanses serving as potential aquatic airports.

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