Aviation history : Attracted by water


Before the actual seaplane came into being, early aviation pioneers were attracted by water as a surface from which to operate an aircraft. Eventually, such experiments turned into the development of naval aviation.



The stories of the first United States aircraft revolved around the Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtiss. Because of his original creations, Glenn Curtiss has been regarded as the country’s most foremost pioneer. He is widely remembered as the builder of seaplanes and flying-boats and a man largely responsible for the successful beginning of US naval aviation.


On 24 April 1979, Paraguay issued a set of 9 stamps and one miniature sheet to commemorate the 75th anniversary of civil aviation and the 35th anniversary of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). One of these stamps shows the Curtiss aircraft used by Ely for the 1910 first-ever take-off from a ship.

On 1 October 1907, Glen Hammond Curtiss formed the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) with Dr. Alexander Graham Bell as Chairman; other Associates were McCurdy, Baldwin and Selfridge. Curtiss was bicycle mechanic; Bell became interested in the problems of heavier-than-air powered flight and was working on a strange–looking machine, named the tetrahedral kite.


After the first experimental machines created by the AEA, the first real success was the June Bug, possibly named after the common June bug insect; it was first flown by Curtiss on 21 May 1908, followed by three successful flights on 21 June.


With the assistance of John McCurdy, the June Bug is believed to be converted to a seaplane by adding floats in an attempt to create a seaplane. Named Loon, it was fitted with a more powerful engine that was later used in the historic Silver Dart (which was the first powered and controlled aircraft flown in Canada and the British Commonwealth). Although the Loon could achieve speeds of up to 43 km/h on the water, it could not take off; on 2 January 1909, it went out of control and sank.


In March 1909, Glenn Curtiss formed his own company, the Herring-Curtiss Company, in association with Augustus Herring. The first independent aircraft designed and built by Glenn Curtiss was the Golden Flyer biplane (with a pusher configuration, as the propeller was behind the pilot), so called because of the color of its wings. During the 1909-1910 period, Curtiss employed a number of demonstration pilots, including Eugene Ely. Piloted by Ely, the Golden Flyer was the first to take-off from the deck of a ship, the cruiser USS Birmingham, on 14 November 1910, and to land on a specially built wood platform on the American cruiser USS Pennsylvania, on 18 January 1911.


In 1911, Curtiss achieved his design for seaplanes, with the first being none other than his already proven Golden Flyer with floats attached, named Hydroaeroplane, which first flew on 26 January 1911 and made history as the first airplane to serve with the U.S. Navy. More background information on this subject can be found by clicking on: Philatelic Laxity: Eugene Ely.



Of the many scientists involved in the research of aerodynamics in the late 19th century, the most eminent were Otto Lilienthal, Octave Chanute and Samuel Langley. Langley was the second pioneer, after Chanute, who tried his luck in this field on what proved to be the very eve of achieving powered, controlled and sustained flight. Very few people today realize that Langley almost succeeded with inventing the airplane before the Wright brothers. An American mathematician and physicist and Head of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley started experimenting aviation in the last decades of the 19th century.


Sierra Leone - 40th Anniversary of ICAO - 1985

Samuel Langley's "Aerodrome A" (1903).

During his tenure at the Smithsonian, Langley continued his research into flying and eventually developed his Aerodrome or flying machine, which evolved over time as Langley's experiments taught him new lessons. Thanks to a grant of $50,000 from the War Department, Langley continued his work on a larger scale. Langley's assistant, Charles Manley, traveled to Europe to observe engines and reported that they could build their own engines successfully. After many changes and innovations and the construction of a new and larger houseboat on the Potomac River, the Aerodrome A was launched on 7 October 1903. Into the water it went. Manley, who was aboard the aerodrome, was rescued from the river.


After recovering the aerodrome, building new wings and refurbishing its engines and airframe, Langley was ready to try again. With Manley aboard on 8 December 1903, the aerodrome was launched from the houseboat. Again, the aerodrome made a crash landing in the cold river; Langley's aerodrome failed again and Langley would not try to fly again. With the success of the Wright Brothers only a short time later, support for Langley ended. More background information on this subject can be found by clicking on: Philatelic Laxity: Langley's Aerodromes.



Deperdussin seaplane, France (1913), manufactured by the Société des Productions Armand Deperdussin, SPAD; race number 19.

In 1912, a French industrialist, balloonist and aircraft enthusiast, Jacques Schneider, announced the Schneider Trophy, a seaplane competition to be held starting in 1913. As race referee at the Monaco meeting in 1912, Schneider noticed that seaplane design was lagging far behind other aircraft. The trophy was first competed on 16 April 1913, at Monaco and won by a French Deperdussin floatplane (Monocoque racer) at an average speed of 45.75 mph (about 73 km/h), flown by Maurice Prévost. The secret of the Monocoque’s success was its revolutionary fuselage, i.e. a single shell of molded plywood without any other framework.


On 20 April 1914 at Monaco, the British won the Schneider Trophy with a Sopwith Tabloid (in floatplane configuration), flown by Howard Pixton; it was the first British aeroplane to beat all comers in a major international contest.


Schneider hoped various clubs and individuals would enter the competition, but after World War I, nationalism became the dominant force and when the series resumed in 1920 aircraft manufacturers' and governments' resources poured into the race and the aircraft took on more of a military nature. More background information on this subject can be found by clicking on: Isle of Man - The Digital Schneider Trophy.


Isle of Man – 27 April 1984 – 40th Anniversary of ICAO

70th Anniversary of the first British win of the Schneider Trophy. Signed by Stella Pixton, daughter of Howard Pixton; limited edition with control number (107/125).

The first day cover (with silk cachet) shows the Sopwith Tabloid in a float-equipped version which won the Schneider Trophy in 1914; the race number 3 is painted on the tail. The floatplane variant consequently became known as the Sopwith Schneider, of which 136 were built.