The Battle of the Beautiful Biplanes

BY: Norm Goyer

One of my favorites is the Curtiss Hawk D in Owl paint scheme.

One of my favorites is the Curtiss Hawk D in Owl paint scheme.

When I look at an airplane I see far more than a flying machine. For example, I firmly believe that aviation owes some of its success to the alluring beauty of our early biplanes between the air battles of World War I and World War II. In the United States, three companies battled it out for orders from the US Army Air Force and the US Navy Airforce. The winner of the biplane battles won large orders while the second and third place winners won small orders. As is often the case, the politicians and bureaucrats placing the orders didn’t really know much about the products they were bidding on. What they saw was a product that looked really good or just average.

The Boeing was a rugged biplane flown by Marines. Not pretty, but efficient.

The Boeing was a rugged biplane flown by Marines. Not pretty, but efficient.

Another good indicator of beauty are the aircraft chosen to be built by model craftsmen. They aren’t interested in how efficient a plane is or how fast it climbs, they care about how pretty it is. They look at lines and not numbers, very similar to the viewers of the Sports Illustrated Swim Suit issue. My personal opinion is that modern jet fighters are more like flying computers than airplanes, drones are ugly by choice. Function precedes performance. Private aircraft, such as Cessna, Beechcraft and Piper single engine aircraft are equal to cars and station wagons, they sure are useful, but not ready for a beauty pageant yet. Helicopters belong to the “Bed and Breakfast crowd, turbine powered egg beaters. But haul out the 1930s batch of military biplanes and you have a Miss USA Biplane Pageant.

This airplane was the last of the Navy's shipboard biplane fighters. The Grumman F3F was called the Flying Barrel.

This airplane was the last of the Navy’s shipboard biplane fighters. The Grumman F3F was called the Flying Barrel.

There is usually one company who has it all together in certain categories. That company for designing biplanes is Curtiss. I don’t know if old Glenn wielded the drawing pens or someone else but they had an eye for airplane beauty. And one or two of them were also good military airplanes as well. The airplanes built by Curtiss, when they first got started, were functional and frankly, pretty ugly. The famous JN-4 Jenny was downright gangly. But the Curtiss Sparrowhawk, the miniature biplane designed to fly and protect dirigibles was very pretty. The lines spelled airplane from nose spinner to tail skid. Curtiss sealed the pretty biplane contest with the design of the Curtiss Hawk D with the “Owl” paint scheme, a very pretty airplane. Curtiss also designed the first Helldiver, a hell-

for-stout biplane dive bomber which was obsolete by the start of WWII. The Helldiver flew and fought so well they retained it for many years until the new Curtiss monoplane Helldiver appeared late in the war. Look at the fuselage, and tail, almost identical to the biplane Helldiver. Of course they were completely different, but the style was very evident.

Curtiss’s friend LeRoy Grumman took another route in designing his prewar biplane fighters. Folks called them “Grumman Barrells” and they looked it. Grumman preferred radial engines and locomotive construction. The last biplane retained by the Navy for carrier duty was the Grumman F3F with retractable gear. The Navy had already ordered batches of them when Brewster introduced the Buffalo monoplane and knocked Grumman’s biplanes right out of the sky. Grumman then realised that biplanes were history. With time a problem, Grumman literally converted the F3F to the monoplane F4F Wildcat. The Navy knew immediately that the Grumman was a far better airplane than the Buffalo, so they sold all the Brewsters to our Allies. The Wildcat went on to be a rugged carrier fighter airplane until the Grumman Hellcat replaced it.

The Curtiss Sparrow Hawk was a small biplane designed to be carried by dirigibles. Note the trapeze on top wing.

The Curtiss Sparrow Hawk was a small biplane designed to be carried by dirigibles. Note the trapeze on top wing.

There was one more heavy hitter in the biplane penant race, Boeing. Boeing was already building biplanes for the Marines and Navy. The Boeing bipes were good rugged airplanes but they lacked style. Boeing had already cut their monoplane teeth with the Boeing P-26. The Peashooter was a low wing very cute aircraft, but that was it. Cute doesn’t necessarily make a good fighter. Boeing was really more interested in multi-engine bombers. They were very good at that.

Eventually Curtiss and Grumman produced huge numbers

of monoplane fighters, the Curtiss P-36/P-40, Grumman Wildcats, Hellcats and Avengers. Boeing swept the skys with their B-17, B-29, B-50s. Our aircraft manufactures know how to get the job done. They may get off to a slow start but, they catch up very quickly.

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