By: Roger Weggel
One of Alaska’s most important historical aircraft, flies, viewed by thousands, with the wrong wings. The Curtiss Jenny JN4-D that is displayed from the ceiling of the Fairbanks International Airport, has Sparrow wings.
The now silver Jenny has a rich and important Alaskan Interior history. It was purchased as a surplus airplane from the War Department in 1923, as number 47358. The Jenny was assembled out of the crate by Ben Eielson, a Fairbanks school teacher at the time. Eielson and a couple of Fairbanks investors started the Farthest-North Airplane Company and spent the summer flying throughout Interior of Alaska.
Ben Eielson’s first flight in the Jenny took place on July 3rd 1923, when he flew to Nenana for the 4th of July celebration. Returning to Fairbanks, the Jenny became Fairbank’s first based aircraft. Throughout the summer Eielson flew the Jenny to places like Nenana, Circle City, Caribou Creek, and the Livengood area servicing mainly the mining industry. Fuel capacity limited the Jenny to a 150 mile range.
With the onset of winter and the placer mines closing for the season, the Jenny was disassembled and placed in a storage barn for the winter. Fairbanks did not have any hangers at the time.
After just a couple of months rest, the Interior‘s only flying service received their first financial boost. A mail contract was awarded to Eielson’s flying company. The Jenny was retrieved from the barn, reassembled, and a set of skies were manufactured. By mid February, 1924, the Jenny was flying to McGrath with the first mail to be delivered by airplane in Alaska, spelling the demise of the dog team mail routes.
The Jenny was flown nonstop by Ben Eielson, weather permitting, carrying mail and numerous passengers until the fall of 1924 when Eielson was called on to finish his military career.
The plane was sold to Joe Crosson who converted the engine from an OX-5 to a 150 horse Hispano-Suiza for greater reliability and range. Crosson flew the airplane into the early 30’s. During a recovering job, a fire broke out in the hanger at Week’s Field, that the Jenny was in. The fuselage was saved by rolling it out of the hanger, but the wings were lost as they were hanging on the wall.
The remains of the aircraft were then stored in a bunker behind a hill on the University of Alaska’s campus. In the late 1950’s a group of airmen from Eielson Air Force Base took the plane out of storage and replaced the old cotton fabric with new. A set of Swallow wings were fitted to the fuselage, and the Jenny was used as a display for the celebration of the base’s tenth anniversary. The Jenny was again returned to storage.
In 1980 the Jenny was again removed from storage, and reconditioned by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, A&P School. Later that year the Jenny was placed on display at the Fairbanks International Airport, where she is today.
The Experimental Aircraft Association, Chapter 1129, of Fairbanks has begun the project of obtaining, or building from scratch, a proper set of wings for the airplane. The set of wing plans are a combination of drawings from five different companies who have made Jenny’s, and none quite match. Superior Hardwoods of Fairbanks has volunteered to cut many of the seven hundred and eighty-nine wood parts needed.