As Vancouver resident Paul Lawson examined a refurbished 1918 Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane at the Pearson Air Museum on Saturday, he recalled how his father told stories of buying one of the surplus planes from the military after World War I.
“That was before people had to get pilot’s licenses,” Lawson said. “(The plane) was cheap, in a cargo box at a Navy base in San Diego … Within a week, he was giving people rides to earn money.”
Aviation enthusiasts gathered Saturday at the museum for the unveiling of the Jenny for permanent exhibit.
About two dozen people gathered at the museum, operated by the National Park Service, at Pearson Field for guest speakers and a ribbon cutting. The speakers touched on the historical significance of the plane and its journey back to Vancouver.
The JN-4 Jenny was the primary airplane used to train American pilots in World War I. It is estimated that 95 percent of American aviators during the war took to the sky and learned to do so in Jennys, said museum manager Bob Cromwell.
Nearly 15,000 were built for the war effort. Thousands were sold as military surplus after the war, when they earned a second life as the plane of choice for barnstorming — aerial stunts that often included flying through barns.
“The design was rugged, easy to fix and forgiving as a trainer, and these factors, combined with the numbers manufactured, made them cheap surplus aircraft” between 1919 and 1925, Cromwell said.
According to the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, the paint scheme of the Jenny now on display at the museum replicates an airplane that flew from Pearson Field in the early 1920s as part of the U.S. Army Air Reserve’s 321st Observation Squadron. The squadron, who conducted fire patrols over regional forests, flew from the Vancouver Barracks from 1921 to 1942.
Unfortunately, several JN-4 Jennys were deemed obsolete in the 1920s, so they were rolled out onto the field and set on fire. Today, the planes would be worth a fortune.
More of the planes disappeared over the years, so acquiring the Jenny as part of the museum’s permanent collection serves as a milestone. It will join a DH-4 Liberty and a recently finished replica of a 1912 Curtiss Pusher. All three of the planes represent aircraft that flew from Pearson Field.
“This is the first time that a DH-4 and a JN-4 have been together at Pearson Field since 1927,” said Cromwell.
When Cromwell approached Tracy Fortmann, superintendent at Fort Vancouver, years ago with a list of planes he thought would perfectly fit with the museum, obtaining them seemed next to impossible.
“All of the planes were so rare. Now, they’re all present,” Fortmann said.
The Jenny was restored by Century Aviation, based out of East Wenatchee, as was the DH-4 unveiled in August 2016 for Fort Vancouver’s 100 anniversary. The planes give visitors a glimpse of how fragile early military aircraft were and the challenges that their crews faced in operating them from primitive, grass fields, Cromwell said.
It took Century Aviation nearly two years to rehabilitate the Jenny. There were no significant hurdles to getting the aircraft completed, other than minor delays on the delivery.
Mark Smith, co-owner of Century Aviation, said 50 percent of the components used in the Jenny are original pieces. It’s usually a smaller portion that’s truly authentic, but the plane’s use as a museum piece allowed the company to incorporate things that are no longer considered serviceable for flight, he said.
The museum’s Jenny will also be the final plane the business will build in its shop, said partner Karen Barrow. Moving forward, Century Aviation will focus solely on museum consultation.
“We’re looking forward to seeing her here more often,” Barrow said of the Jenny.