Curtis Robin: A Trusty old bird...
To save the Meridian, Mississippi, Municipal Airport, brothers Fred and Al Key had a plan. On June 4, 1935, they lifted off in a borrowed Curtiss Robin baptized “Old Miss,” and for the next 27 days stayed aloft. The “Flying Keys,” as they became known, had established a new endurance record in a second-hand Robin, convinced Town Hall to keep the airport open, and inspired a whole generation of kids around the country.
David Mars, of Pocahontas, Mississippi, was one of them, growing up dreaming about owning a Curtiss Robin. Years would go by before he could fulfill his childhood dream. He explains: “ I come from a flying family. I am third generation pilot, and my son flies, also. I have been flying for 40 years now, and I hold single-engine, multi-engine, seaplane, instrument and commercial ratings. I have about 12,000 hours of flying time, most of it on tailwheel airplanes. I own a Cessna 180, a Cessna 195, a Travel Air 4000 and the 1929 Curtiss Robin N3277G, constructor number 237.
“I only had the Robin for two months, but I always have been enamored with its history, as I grew up 30 miles from where the Key brothers made their endurance flight. When the plane came up for sale, I just happened to cross paths with it at the Meridian airport. I fell in love with it, went back, called its owner and convinced him to sell it to me.”
Introduced in the spring of 1928, the three place Robin was the first significant civilian model of the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Co. since the Oriole of 1919. While the design of the Robin was quite “modern,” the choice of its engine -the Curtiss OX-5- was a step back in time.
Construction was conventional for the time: welded steel-tube fuselage and tail surfaces, and wood wings, fabric covered. Seating was for two passengers side-by-side at the back of the cabin, while the pilot was seating on a wicker chair in the front. Originally, the Robins were equipped with tail skid and no brakes. Curtiss formed a new company, the Curtiss-Robertson Airplane Manufacturing Corp. and built a new factory in Anglum, near St Louis, to manufacture the airplane.
The first Curtiss-Robertson Robin rolled out of the factory and first flew on August 7, 1928. Priced at $4000, the Robin sold well, and became one of the major successes of the commercial aviation of the late 20s.
After WWII, the Robins found their niche as sprayers, modified with surplus engine, specially Continental R-670 and Lycoming R-680. Of the 769 Robins built between 1928 and 1932, fifty-two are still on the register, while the flying population is less than twenty. A pretty representative example, number 237, rolled out of the assembly line of the Curtiss-Robertson factory at Anglum/StLouis of the Curtiss Aircraft Corporation in 1929. Assigned the N8356 registration, it was originally delivered as a model B, equipped with a Curtiss OX-5. During the 1930s, a Curtiss Challenger engine was substituted to the original OX-5, and then again, replaced by a Continental 220 in the early 50s. This seemed to have been a necessary step for the export of the plane to Mexico, where it operated for a few years, before being returned to the US and re-registered as N3277G in 1966.
In 1975, the Robin was recovered using the Stits process, a fabric it still carries today. Carl Williams, of Cherry Hills Village, Colorado, acquired it and based it in Denver, before transferring it to Gillespie Field, in San Diego. In 1991, Glenn Cruz carried out some extensive restoration work in his San Diego shop. This included an engine overhaul, a rework of the firewall, instrument panel, flight controls, cable, interior, and the horizontal stabilizer.
Kurt Grasso of Deland, Florida, who acquired it early 2007, sold it 3 months later to Davis Mars, who continues: “ With two persons on board, the airplane performs well. It is a little sluggish on the controls, which is to be expected for an airplane this size. Upon landing the forward visibility is nil, so you have to line up the airplane in relation to the edge of the runaway, and let it down. Upon taxi, visibility is not a major problem, as you have peripheral vision though the side door of the cabin.” This general impression is confirmed by Glenn Cruz, who used to fly the Robin for Carl Williams: “The airplane is typical of a 1920s vintage airplane; it flies like a barn door. In smooth air, it will fly straight and level with little input, but, in not so smooth air, you have to make constant control inputs on all three axes.
“Taking off in the airplane is easy; it has enough power to lift off in the three point attitude. Landing is an altogether different matter, as it cannot be landed solo in a three point attitude without, at least 150 lbs of ballast. This is critical in a crosswind. I always approach with, at least 80 mph in final, so I have plenty of control. Then I bleed airspeed until touch down at about 55 mph.” With a Continental 220, the Robin is a reliable workhorse. This should allow Davis Mars to enjoy flying his trusty old bird for many years to come.