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Flying Boat up for auction: Curtiss MF Seagull

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March 25, 2010

The Curtiss MF Seagull represents the era of flight, sailing, and engineering in one stunn...

The Curtiss MF Seagull represents the era of flight, sailing, and engineering in one stunning piece of history Credit: Courtesy of Bonhams

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Putting aside ugly flying cars, no one should fail to be moved by the gorgeous warm-colored wood, hammered copper trims and time-worn patina of this gorgeous piece of antiquity. One of the last known Curtiss MF Seagull Flying Boats is to be sold at auction on Tuesday April 13 at Bonhams in New York. Rich in history, this beautiful vintage sea plane was designed and created by engineer and aviator Glenn H. Curtiss, otherwise known as "the Father of Naval Aviation."

Glenn H.Curtiss, educated only to grade 8 in New York but showing great mechanical and inventive aptitude, began his career in a printworks and later built a business in motorcycles. He set the land speed record (earning him the title "the fastest man in world"), and whilst working as an engine supplier was approached by Alexander Graham Bell to design a suitable engine for heavier-than-air flight experimentation. Bell regarded Curtiss as "the greatest motor expert in the country" and asked him (after being turned down by the Wright Brothers) to join his Aerial Experiment Association (AEA). Together they made four aircraft and as a result Curtiss would become one of the leading pioneers in the early American aviation industry.

Although his arch-rivals the Wright Brothers are credited as the first to fly, they turned down the invitation to attempt a public flight at Independence Day celebrations in 1908 and thus Curtiss was recognized at the demonstration as the first to take to the skies in the third plane he designed with the AEA, the Dune Bug. The flight propelled Glenn Curtiss and aviation firmly into the public arena and in the years leading up to the war his participation in aerial competitions and demonstration flights across North America helped to introduce aviation to a curious public. It is said the fictional character Tom Swift, who first appeared in 1910 in Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle and Tom Swift and His Airship, was based on Glenn Curtiss.

In 1909 he created the first US aircraft company, the Herring-Curtiss Company which was renamed the Curtiss Aeroplane Company in 1910. During this year Curtiss was to begin a long and significant relationship with the Navy beginning when one of his demonstration pilots successfully took off from the forward deck of the cruiser USS Birmingham in a Curtiss pusher plane, and later performing a successful landing on the rear deck of the battleship USS Pennsylvania. By the end of 1910 he was engaged to teach flying to Army and Naval personnel at an encampment in San Diego referred to by the Navy as "The Birthplace of Naval Aviation".

While Curtiss was not the inventor of the flying boat, Curtiss's greatest contribution to naval aviation was the perfection of the seaplane and during that winter he developed a pontoon design that would enable him to take off and land on water, demonstrations of which were of great interest to the Navy. Curtiss custom built floats and adapted them onto a Model D pusher plane so it could take off and land on water, and six months later Curtiss sold the U.S. Navy their first aircraft. It was primarily a seaplane, and equipped with retractable wheels, making it the first amphibian. The plane was immediately purchased by the U.S. Navy, Russia, Japan, Germany and Britain, and Curtiss won the Collier Trophy for his design.

The design was for a biplane flying boat powered by a single engine mounted amongst the interplane struts and driving a pusher propeller. Its length was 8.5 meters, height 3.5 meters, wingspan almost 14 meters, weighing 844kg (empty) and powered by a 75kW engine. Maximum speed was 69 mph, rate of climb 1.2m/s and it offered endurance of five hours and 30 minutes. The pilot and a single passenger sat side-by-side in an open cockpit with dual control.

The pilot and a single passenger sat side-by-side in an open cockpit with dual control.  C...

The earliest examples were built and sold by Curtiss in 1912 and became known as Model F in 1913; later Model MF (Modernized-F) after revisions to improve handling in water. In 1921 eighty-seven MFs were in service with the Navy but post-war many were sold off as surplus or converted by Curtiss's company to the "MF Seagull" configuration which gave them increased horsepower and additional seating for the post-war civil market. Henry Ford founder of Ford Motor Company is famously pictured with Curtiss and an MF, and Sid Chaplin, brother of Charlie Chaplin was one of the first buyers in 1926.

The Seagull up for auction was the sixty-first in a batch of eighty built in Philadelphia Docks. It was probably stationed as a Naval trainer before being released as surplus in 1923 and sold to William H. Long who appears to have been the sole owner. Long kept the Seagull in Sandusky Bay, Ohio and made frequent trips to Cedar Point Amusement Park with joyriders and sightseers. In 1945 he carefully refurbished it and donated it to Cleveland’s Frederick C. Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum since when it has been on display at the Western Historical Reserve Society, and was retired from public exhibition only recently.

Of over 150 MFs built, only four are known to survive in aviation museums in North America. This particular representative has been treated carefully and is in remarkably good condition for it's age. New it would have cost US$6000, while Bonhams expect it to sell for an estimated US$300,000 - $500,000.

Whoever the lucky new owner of this magnificent artifact may be, they will also be purchasing a narrative to define the spirit of the age; daring, courage, chivalry and innovation - the era of flight, sailing, and engineering in one stunning piece of history.

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